The Scots at the Westminster Assembly: With Special Reference to the Dispute on Church Government and its Aftermath
Some surprises soon face the inquirer into the subject now before us. The Westminster Assembly was an assembly of English divines, meeting, of course, in the English capital. The Scots present, strictly speaking, were not members of that Assembly at all for they did not vote, although they possessed the right to speak. As we shall see, they were 'commissioners' and as such their position was an unusual one. This was somewhat humorously illustrated soon after their arrival. On a February afternoon in 1644 a great dinner was held by the order of Parliament in the City of London. First there was a service at Christ's Church, Newgate, then a mighty procession wound its way through streets, lined by the armed trained bands, to Taylors Hall where the gathering was to take place. At the head of that procession were the Lords of the Common Counsel in their gowns, then the Mayor and Aldermen dressed in scarlet on horseback, followed, in turn, by the leading officers of the army and navy and more members of the House of Lords. After them came the House of Commons and finally the Assembly of Divines. But where were the Scots to appear in all this pageantry? One of the Scots commissioners was a nobleman so his place was near the front. The rest of the commissioners were instructed to walk before the divines of the Assembly. With typical Scottish reserve, the visitors from the north declined to do this — 'not loving to place ourselves before all the divines of England'. Instead they tried to go privately by coach, but the traffic jam was so bad that the horses could not move and the commissioners finished up going 'on foot, with great difficulty, through huge crowdings of people'. 1
Not only did the Scots have this rather unusual relationship to the Assembly, their number was also very small in comparison with the majority. Initially the English divines called to Westminster numbered 120. In the event, the number attending was closer to sixty and often less. 2But the Scots commissioners numbered only six in February 1644. Here then is another surprise. It is granted on all sides that the Scots made a major contribution to the work of the Westminster Assembly, but how could so few wield an influence so disproportionate to their number?
The Background to the Work of the Westminster Assembly
Let us begin by remembering some general history. In 1560 Protestantism was precariously established in both England and Scotland and, confronted by the great Catholic powers of Europe, the two countries were brought closer than they had ever been before. In 1603, in the person of James VI, Scotland gave England a shared sovereign. The English Puritans hoped to find in James a king sympathetic to their own aspirations for the reformation of the church but it was not to be. James, and later his son, Charles I, had no love for presbytery and they regarded episcopacy as the best support for an autocratic monarchy. A more biblical Christianity was persecuted in both England and Scotland until finally the noble women of Edinburgh could stand no more, and when a new service book was to be read in St Giles church on 23 July 1637 they put a stop to it by their outcry. From such unlikely beginnings a revolution had begun in Scotland. In the words of Richard Baxter: 'One woman cried out in the church, "Popery, Popery", and threw her stool at the priest; and others imitated her presently, and drove him out of the church; and this little spark set all Scotland quickly in a flame'.3From this movement came the National Covenant subscribed in 1638 by all the Protestant leadership of the country. Twice the army of King Charles marched north to subdue his rebellious fellow-countrymen and twice he was forced to give way before Scottish arms. A chief reason for the King's failure was that he was bereft of the support of the English Parliament who had considerable sympathy for the Scots' cause. In a Thanksgiving Service at the House of Commons after peace was restored, the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs praised the Scottish army for their conduct on English soil:
When or where was there such an army, conveyed from a barren to a fruitful country as they did, having such advantages of such a considerable place as they had, yet carrying themselves so large a time not only peaceably, but justly, so many thousands of them kept in such order as they were, enduring such extremities, rather than seeking to relieve themselves by outrages, and at last departing peaceably, discharging what they took, blessing the people and praying for them.4
This peace was made in 1641 but it was short-lived. The next year Charles I and his Cavaliers went to war with his own Puritanically-inclined English Parliament. In so doing he looked for help from his Scottish subjects. Instead the Scots decided, after some hesitation, to support the Parliamentary cause. Thus when the English Parliament sent a delegation to Edinburgh, including two Puritan ministers, the result was a unique treaty drawn up between the two countries in the form of a sworn pledge to God. This was 'The Solemn League and Covenant' drawn up in Edinburgh in August 1643. By that time the Westminster Assembly had already been meeting for over a month and the English Parliament now urged that divines from the Scottish Church should be sent to join their ministerial brethren at Westminster. Thus the General Assembly of the Scottish Church commissioned eight men (five ministers and three elders), or any three of them (provided two were ministers), to go south to London. The commission given to them was larger than that of being assistants at the Westminster Assembly. They were commissioners to the English Parliament itself and authorised to see that all the terms of the treaty, which included the promise of help from the Scottish army for the English Parliament, were fulfilled. So once in London, the Scots commissioners saw themselves as invested with the authority of representatives of their country as well as of their church. That is why they declined to be considered as members of the Assembly which they joined in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey in the autumn of 1643. They were there primarily to oversee the terms of a treaty.
This brings us to what was perhaps the most decisive contribution of Scotland to the Assembly. The Scots envisaged a greater work for the Westminster Assembly than most had yet considered. Until the revolt in Edinburgh, the King had exercised a largely autocratic control of the church both in England and Scotland by means of his bishops. When the wars began, and the bishops sided with the monarchy, the structure of the church was left in confusion. In both countries the church needed a second reformation. The form of the church, its discipline, worship and teaching needed to be re-established upon Scripture. Such was the objective of the National Covenant of 1638 and Alexander Henderson, the leading inspirer of that covenant, was asked by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1641 to draw up a new Directory of Worship, a catechism, a Confession of Faith and a Form of Church Government. 5But Henderson failed to proceed with this task and for a wise reason. He saw that the best hope for permanent freedom from tyranny in church and state in England and Scotland lay in the unity of both nations in a common commitment to biblical Christianity. The cause of Christ in the north and the south had to be one. He therefore concluded that it would be premature for the Scots to go ahead with their own new church documents. In a letter of 20 April 1642. Henderson wrote of doing nothing:
till we see what the Lord will do in England and Ireland, where I still wait for a reformation and unity with us; but this must be brought to pass by common consent, and we are not to conceive that they will embrace our Form; but a new Form must be set down for us all, and in my opinion some men set apart sometime for that work.6
The next year, when Henderson knew that the English Parliament had called an assembly of divines, and when the Scots were then invited to send their own men to that assembly, he saw a God-given opportunity. At the time that the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up in Edinburgh, the Westminster Assembly was quietly proceeding to revise the Thirty-nine Articles of the English church. The terms of the League — of which Henderson was the chief composer — now set a much larger agenda. The first of the six commitments which it stipulated read:
(We ... do swear) That we shall, really, and constantly, through the grace of GOD, endeavour, in our several places and callings, the preservation of the reformed religion of the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, against our common enemies; the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland ... according to the word of GOD, and the example of the best reformed churches; and we shall endeavour to bring the Churches in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechising; that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us.7
The acceptance of these words in London meant virtually a new beginning for the Westminster Assembly. It was no longer a question of the mere revision of the English Thirty-nine Articles. Something much larger and more international was now the objective. There was the hope of a success which would bring blessing to all Britain.
These two kingdoms have before them an end,' wrote Samuel Rutherford, 'the covenant to be the people of God... Blessed shall they be of the Lord who mediate for the preventing of national ruptures, and for the continuance of the brotherly covenant. Christ Jesus is a uniting Saviour, one God, one Faith, one Lord Jesus Christ, one religion should be, and I beseech the God of peace, they may be chains of gold to tie these two nations and churches together in uno tertio, that they may be concentered and united in one Lord Jesus.8
Nor was this simply a vision for Britain. They looked far beyond. 'We all hope,' wrote one of the Scots commissioners, 'that the chariot of the Lord will not here stand, nor be arrested within the compass of this Isle'.9' We are thinking of a new work overseas, if this church were settled ... The 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.' 10This same internationalism is reflected in the first document to be issued by the Westminster Assembly, 'The Directory for the Public Worship of God'. The Directory required that the infant colonies in America should be remembered in prayer ('our plantations in the remote parts of the world'), and, more than that, there was the obligation 'to pray for the propagation of the gospel and kingdom of Christ to all nations; for the conversion of the Jews, the fulness of the Gentiles, the fall of Antichrist, and the hastening of the second coming of Christ'.
Such was the vision present at the Westminster Assembly and no small part of its inspiration came from the Scots.
The Scottish Commissioners
We must now attempt some brief description of the men who came from Scotland to London in the autumn of 1643. Of the eight appointed, two never came. A few more noblemen arrived later but the most significant figures were the six who were there from the early stages. The first two to arrive in London in September 1643 were Alexander Henderson and George Gillespie, Henderson the oldest, and Gillespie the youngest of the ministers. Born in 1585, Henderson was in the ministry unconverted until he heard Robert Bruce preach at Forgan in Fife about 1615. Previous to that, Henderson had been forced upon the congregation at nearby Leuchars, even to the extent of his first entry to the church being through a window on account of the locked doors. Bruce can scarcely have prepared his sermon with that in mind yet his text was, 'He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber' (John 10:1). As Bruce had taken up the torch from Knox, so Henderson carried it on from Bruce and by the time of the second reformation he was one of the wisest statesmen in the church. Even his opponents admired his ability and culture.
Gillespie was only thirty in the year he came to Westminster — 'an excellent youth' as one of his friends described him. More legends are attached to Gillespie at Westminster than to any of the other commissioners. One of them has to do with his first appearance at the Assembly. He arrived from the north just as a great debate was in progress and could only stand near the door in the crowded Jerusalem Chamber. One of the English leaders was arguing a case that was an anathema to the Scots and Henderson, noting Gillespie's arrival, urged the chairman to call him to speak. Gillespie pleaded to be excused but at last came forward, still in his travelling boots, and in an hour and a half delivered a 'triumphant demolition' of his opponent's case. The story is unquestionably apocryphal; it is contradicted by known facts and yet the very existence of such stories tells us much about how Gillespie's memory was revered. We hear enough from his contemporaries to know that he had remarkable gifts. John Livingstone wrote of him:
He promoted much the work of reformation, and attained to a gift of clear, pressing, strong, and calm debating above any man of his time.11
The next two Scots commissioners to reach London were Robert Baillie and Samuel Rutherford, after a stormy voyage from Scotland. Both were middle-aged university professors with their years of pastoral charge behind them. Rutherford brought his wife with him, as did Gillespie, but Baillie was to be perpetually homesick for Glasgow. At Westminster, Baillie was chiefly a behind-the-scenes lobbyist and negotiator, and he was the one Scot whose correspondence from London has survived in considerable bulk. Among all those present at Westminster it is only Baillie who has left us a description of what the Assembly looked like, crowded into the Jerusalem Chamber. The room, he tells us, could seat between one hundred and one hundred and twenty people but this was only because there were four or five forms tiered up the walls on three sides. At the end of the room, away from the door, the seat of the chairman, 'Mr. Prolocutor Dr. Twisse', stood a foot above the floor. In front of him were the seats of two assessors and then a table running down the centre of the room where two scribes sat. Members of the Assembly might sit anywhere though they usually took the same seats:
The house is well hung, and has a good fire, which is some dainties at London ... the Lords of Parliament uses to sit on chairs about the fire. We meet every day of the week but Saturday. We sit commonly from nine to one or two in the afternoon ... Ordinarily there will be present above three score of their divines. After the prayer, Mr. Byfield the scribe, reads the proposition and Scriptures, whereupon the Assembly debates in a most grave and orderly way. No man speaks to any but to the Prolocutor. They harangue long and very learnedly. They study the questions well beforehand, and prepare their speeches; but withal the men are exceedingly prompt and well spoken. I do marvel at the very accurate and extempore replies that many of them usually do make ... They follow the way of their Parliament. Much of their way is good, and worthy of our imitation.12
Rutherford, the best-remembered of the Scots commissioners, did not fall short of his reputation for learning and eloquence at Westminster. Along with Gillespie, he was one of 'the twenty or so men who were regular debaters in the Assembly,' 13 and many days were enlivened by his vivid language and fire.
The non-ministerial elders who came to Westminster were both later in arriving. John Maitland, soon to be Earl of Lauderdale, was there in time for the February procession to the dinner at Taylors Hall. Of noble blood, Maitland was the youngest of all the commissioners and less prominent than his fellow-elder, the lawyer, Archibald Johnston of Wariston, who had been knighted and made one of the Lords of Session by Charles I.
Clerk of the reforming General Assembly of 1638, Wariston had urged the Scots to back the English Parliament, and he shared with Henderson in the preparation of the Solemn League and Covenant, with its vision for uniformity between the churches of Scotland and England. Wariston was easily one of the foremost, as well as one of the most spiritual, of the covenanting laymen.
When these Scots leaders came to London they had no idea how long they would be there. The Assembly was to sit for five years, six months and twenty-two days, that is from 1 July 1643 to 22 February 1649. None of the Scots stayed for that whole period. Henderson was the first of the ministers to leave in 1646. Baillie was there till the end of 1646. 14 Gillespie departed in July 1647, and Rutherford was the last to leave in November 1647 when he was thanked by the Prolocutor for the great assistance he had given. By that date all the major work of the Assembly had been done.
The Problems Confronting the Scottish Commissioners at Westminster
We must not forget that Scotland and England at this date were two separate and distinct nations. The commissioners found culture shock to be as much a problem for them as it can be for travellers today. There was much in England to remind the Scots that they were in a different country. When Baillie and Rutherford first arrived in London they had to stay indoors until a new set of clothes appropriate for London was provided for them. 15 Their thinking on the currency had also to be adjusted. On an earlier visit Baillie had been struck by the 'great expenses'. He complained that in English inns, 'for three meals, coarse enough, we would pay, together with our horses, sixteen or seventeen pounds sterling'.16He was surprised that at the great dinner, already mentioned, laid on in Taylors Hall, no dessert was served, nor was there any music apart from drums and trumpets! But difficulties increased when cultural matters overlapped with religious issues. The first December the commissioners were in London, the Puritan parliamentary leader, John Pym died, and his funeral was a state occasion. But the Scots were noticeably absent 'for funeral sermons,' said Baillie, 'we must have away, with the rest'.17 When 25 December approached the Northerners wanted the Assembly to sit as usual but, strangely, the English disagreed. Sometimes the religious practices even of good Puritans were almost incomprehensible to the Scots as, for instance, the, procedure of Independents who observed the Lord's Supper once a week. Such a practice, Baillie thought, 'seems to be very irreverent'.18
A second problem for the Scots had to do with the terms under which the Assembly was convened. It was not only called by the English Parliament, and no one admitted without parliamentary warrant, but the very order of debates depended upon Parliament and its approval had to be gained for the publication of any document. In one sense parliamentary control helped the Scots, given the civil authority they possessed as representatives of a nation whose army, initially at least, was of major importance to the parliamentary cause. But ultimately the subservience of the Assembly to Parliament was to prove a major difficulty. In Scotland a battle had already been fought for the independence of the church from civil control. It had not been fought in England, and in England people had painful memories of what could happen when the church held coercive power over citizens. One of the most forthright of all speeches at the Westminster Assembly was given by Johnston of Wariston on Christ's right to rule his church without civil interference. 19But the English Parliament had no intention of allowing church affairs to proceed independently of its supervision. 20
A further problem for the Scots was perhaps the most serious. The group of Englishmen within the Assembly with whom they had the closest spiritual affinity in many respects was the Independents. Led by such men as Thomas Goodwin, William Bridge and Jeremiah Burroughs, the Independents belonged to that eminent school of experimental preachers which had grown up in Cambridge and East Anglia. Like the Scots they had suffered persecution. They had lost their livelihoods for the sake of the gospel and for urging a form of public worship uncompromised by superstitious additions. Prior to 1643, these Independents had been assured that they would find safe sanctuary if they wished to settle in Scotland. Even if they did not become Presbyterians, it was said that they would enjoy toleration 'on their good and peaceable behaviour'.21In opposition to prelacy, and in so much else, the Independents and the Scots commissioners were natural allies.
In a book published the year before he came to Westminster, Rutherford spoke of the Independents as the only friends of godliness who were likely to oppose the Scots' views of church government: 'I speak to the godly, the lover of truth, the sufferer for truth against antichristian prelacy ... who possibly liketh not well of presbyterial government. And to such I am a debtor in love, charity , honour and all due respect in Christ Jesus... Our Physician Christ can well discern betwixt weakness and wickedness, and will not have us cast one straw before any whose face is towards heaven to cause them to stumble'.22Once in London, it was Rutherford's opinion that the Independents 'come nearest to walkers with God', and that 'The best of the people are of the Independent way'.23If there is an element of real tragedy in the story of the Westminster Assembly it has to do with the breakdown between the Scots and the Independents. We will come back to this point.
The Contribution of the Scots Commissioners to the Westminster Documents
In accordance with the provisions of the Solemn League and Covenant, four series of documents were finally produced by the Assembly. We will touch on these in turn but first it has to be stressed that, because of the way the Assembly worked, there can generally be no certainty in deciding who had the largest share in the final form of any of the documents. The Assembly as such met, as already said, on most weekday mornings, but, apart from its full sessions, there were constant meetings of committees. The whole Assembly was divided into three committees, in addition to which there were also sub-committees, drafting-committees, and a Grand Committee. Because most of the basic work was done in these committees, and because very little record has survived of their proceedings, the extent of the contributions made by any individual or group cannot be assessed. It can probably be assumed that the major influence in these committees came from the same twenty or so men who spoke most in the deliberations of the full assembly. Rutherford and Gillespie would therefore have been prominent.
The first document to be concluded by the Assembly was 'The Directory for the Public Worship of God'. This was not a liturgy or a service book but a finely-stated set of guidelines which aimed at an overall unity in services of public worship rather than any exact, verbal uniformity. The very term 'Directory' seems to have been of Scottish origin and there is strong evidence of major Scottish participation. We know that they were heavily involved in the committee work which lay behind it. The drafts of some of the most important sections of the Directory came from the Scots but as another Scot, Alexander F. Mitchell, says, these drafts 'had passed through English hands, and been greatly improved and enriched by doing so'.24B. B. Warfield is right in saying of the Directory as a whole that it 'does not so much follow Scottish as offer a compromise between Scottish and Puritan usage'.25
Of the Confession of Faith itself — the Assembly's most magisterial work — there is less evidence of the extent of the Scottish contribution. Some have suggested that credit for the authorship might belong to the Scots more than the English26 but this is certainly mistaken. While one large committee (in which the Scots participated) played a special part, the Confession represents the combined wisdom of the entire Assembly.27 It is surely fitting that a document which so clearly sets down the glory of God as the end of all things should not base its reputation on any one group or on particular individuals.
When we come to the Catechisms, the Larger and the Shorter, they have been so largely connected with Scotland that it might be supposed that they are more particularly of Scottish origin. But as that eminent Scottish historian A. E Mitchell has shown, this is not the case. He names eleven English members of the Assembly who had written and published catechisms of their own, years before the Assembly convened. The Scots also had their own catechisms, and initially they probably hoped that one of them would be adopted by the Assembly, but they willingly gave way to the better alternatives proposed. The fact is that by the time the Shorter Catechism was finished, of all the Scottish commissioners only Rutherford was still at Westminster. Mitchell regrets that it shows no trace of Rutherford's 'homely imagery', and says:
Though in Scotland as elsewhere, this catechism has been, and deservedly so, the most popular of all the productions of the Assembly, it was the one with the elaboration of which the Scottish Commissioners had least to do.28
Of course, it must also be remembered that the Westminster Catechisms, and also the Confession itself, were built upon earlier sources. The way for all the many eminent Puritan catechists had been prepared by others. Even the most famous words of the opening question of the Shorter Catechism did not originate with that document. They were drawn from older catechisms. The 'chief end of man's life', said the English translation of Calvin's Catechism, is 'to have his glory showed forth in us', and the catechism of William Ames added the words, 'in the enjoying of God'.29 With catechisms, as with all else in the kingdom of Christ, one generation stands on the shoulders of another.
We come then to the last of the documents prepared by the Assembly, the ones which concern the form of church government, and here we have the most difficulty. If the Westminster Assembly had simply concerned itself with the matters which all Puritans held in common its deliberations would have been a great deal shorter than they were. On such subjects as worship and preaching, on the doctrines of grace, and on Protestant theology over against Catholicism — on all such issues there was general unanimity. But once controversies arise they quickly become the main focus of attention and to a considerable extent this seems to have happened in the deliberations at Westminster. On the question of church government, the Assembly, and the Parliament which authorised its deliberations, ran into trouble for which, in England at least, there appeared to be no remedy.
The documents sanctioned by the Assembly which came out of this controversy were 'The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government' and 'The Directory for Church Government'. In these statements, it can be argued, Scottish influence was at its strongest. This had to be the case if there the Scots' hopes of uniformity in church government, as expressed in the Solemn League and Covenant, were to be fulfilled. England had no experience of a full-developed presbyterian discipline. Baillie complained in London in 1643, 'As yet a Presbytery to this people is conceived to be a strange monster'.30 A later writer, referring to the same thing, says: 'The task of explaining and vindicating Presbytery devolved chiefly upon the Scottish divines, who were admirably qualified for the important duty'. 31William Campbell concludes, 'The Westminster standards, as formulated, were the triumph of Scottish ecclesiastical propaganda'.32There can be no doubt that the form of church government set down in the Westminster documents was largely the form already existing in Scotland and that it was first presented to the Assembly by the Scottish commissioners. 33So successful were the Scots, in fact, that history has identified the Westminster Assembly with Presbyterianism, as though the form of church government it approved ought to provide the label by which it is best remembered.
Unquestionably, this contribution by the Scots commissioners to the Westminster documents was, in certain respects, the means of immense good. It confirmed the churches in Scotland and Ulster with a form of church government which for centuries became almost co-extensive with their populations. It was carried to North America and inspired settlers with principles which eventually went into the moulding of the United States. On a lesser scale, it made a similar impact on Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Presbyterian churches world-wide have looked back to Westminster and to Scotland as to a fountainhead.
But when we come back to one of the main purposes in the Solemn League and Covenant, namely, to secure uniformity in church order between the churches of England and Scotland, the Scots' policy did not succeed. The presbyterian form secured no general acceptance in the south and after 1660 it was only to survive in corners of the land. It can be argued that the Scots were not principally to blame for the ultimate failure, 34 but the extent to which they did bear responsibility warrants attention for it raises issues still relevant to us today.
Prior to 1643, the majority of the men who became members of the Westminster Assembly had appeared to show little commitment to definite presbyterian principles. The question therefore arises how the small group of Scots gained the support of the majority for these documents on church order. Nineteenth-century writers have explained this support by claiming that the majority had always been latent Presbyterians, it was just that circumstances in the national church before the 1640s prevented any public expression of their position. When the bishops' power was ended, support for the Scots' position was therefore perfectly natural. But while granting that this was true of some members of the Assembly, there is evidence to show that it was not true of the majority. Writing in 1644, Robert Baillie says that 'a great party in the Synod' (i.e., the Assembly) had no fixed Presbyterian principles, 35 and he affirms: 'Had not God sent Mr. Henderson, Mr. Rutherford, and Mr. Gillespie, among them, I see not that ever they could (have) agreed to any settled government'.36Baxter gives confirmation to this statement. Replying to the charge that it was 'Presbyterians' who started the Civil War, he writes: 'The truth is, Presbytery was not then known in England, except among a few studious scholars, nor well by them'.37Modern studies of the debates at the Assembly, as contained in the Minutes, give support to these statements. It was the Scots, not the English, who led on the issue of government by presbytery. It was they who so often answered the Independent members. It was their influence which won the majority to the conclusions that were finally set down.
As with most debates, the case is generally won or lost according to the commitment of the various contestants to one or two basic presuppositions. The Scots commissioners, as already said, held much in common with the Independents but they differed over an issue of fundamental significance. The Protestant churches of the Reformation had almost universally become national Protestant churches as the monarchs and governments of those nations abandoned Roman Catholicism. By the death or defeat of a king or queen a country might thus change its religion overnight. The churches of the Protestant nations were not divided into denominations, as known to us, but they were certainly divided by national boundaries. Now the Scots and the majority at Westminster did not doubt that further reformation had to be in terms of their existing national churches. While England and Scotland had seen variations in the precise relationship between church and state, for centuries it had been axiomatic in both countries that spiritual, political and social cohesion depended on the unity of church and state. It was over this point that a fundamental problem was now emerging. In neither England nor Scotland had political and spiritual change been co-extensive. In both countries many had been savingly united to Christ but these remained minorities in churches to which the whole nation belonged. Wariston complained that the Scottish Parliament was 'like to Noah's ark, which had in it both foul and clean creatures', 38 yet these same parliamentarians all belonged to the same church. The 'truly godly', as Rutherford called them, were thus formally united to those whose Christian profession was far removed from the Christianity of the New Testament.
Many of the most tense issues debated at Westminster were related to this problem, not least as it affected the administration of the sacraments. In an off-the-cuff remark in a letter to a friend, Baillie complained of the Independents that: 'They will admit of none to be members of their congregations of whose true grace and regeneration they have no good evidences. By this means they would keep out all the Christian church, forty for one of the members of the best reformed churches'. 39Such an extraordinary admission is proof of how strongly the idea of one national church prevailed. As Wayne Spear says, according to the Assembly's view, 'Nearly the whole population might be included in the church, even though few of them might have an experiential knowledge of the Gospel'.40
The Scots and the majority of the Assembly shared the fundamental conviction that there had to be one united, national church in their two countries. Their hopes of religious unity between the two countries indeed depended on that belief. The national churches might be further reformed, and made subject to better discipline, but they had to remain. Independency, with its different standard for church membership, could not serve this purpose, and an episcopal form of government was not a real alternative in the London of the 1640s. So Presbyterianism remained the one form of church government which offered any prospect for the fulfilment of common aspirations. Here was the main reason why the majority voted with the Scots.This case is most fully argued by R. S. Paul who concludes: 'Once we disabuse ourselves of the notion that the members had arrived at Westminster with a fixed ecclesiology, the shifting characteristics of the voting majority can be better understood, and it will be seen that the things which eventually brought them to the Scots' side were fear of the growing sectarianism, determination to preserve an established church state, and a strong desire to maintain the status and authority of the clergy' (Assembly of the Lord, p. 322n.).41They started from the same compelling presupposition. They shared a concept of church-state unity which few yet questioned. Furthermore, with most of Protestantism, Scots and English held to a doctrine of the external unity of the catholic church which looked upon the separation of any congregation from the control of a common government as schism. 42So strongly was this view held that Rutherford could argue for the baptism of all children on the grounds that, 'There is a holiness of the covenant, and a holiness of covenants, and there is the holiness of the nation, stock and people'. 43Here was strong theological motivation for national uniformity and their concern to attain it was heightened by the danger posed by the sects and factions which were emerging in England in the 1640s. If such sects could not be controlled, and were allowed to exist independently, they seemed to threaten immense damage to the cause of the gospel. These fears are understandable, yet the paradox is that it was the passion for unity and control which contributed to the permanent fragmentation which ensued. An emphasis was laid on uniformity in church government which gave that subject precedence over truths of superior importance. The external unity of the ill-defined church came to have priority over the unity of Christians. Jeremiah Burroughs, speaking of the dissensions 'amongst men that truly fear God', observed with sadness,
that those that come nearest together, yet differing in some things, are many times at greater variance one with another, than those who differ in more things from them ... I am confident it cannot be shown that ever there was a time since the world began, that so many godly people in a kingdom have had such a large opportunity of public service, as for these last five years hath been in England; and shall this opportunity be lost with our wranglings and contendings? Oh how unworthy we are to live in such times as these are. 44
Nineteenth-century Presbyterian writers have blamed the failure of the Westminster divines to secure Presbyterianism in England on the obstinacy of the Independents and on the emergence of their political power in the person of Oliver Cromwell.45
But this is to obscure no small deficiency on the Presbyterian side. As already indicated, their national-church starting point led them to defend standards of church membership incompatible with the New Testament. Further, the policy of the Solemn League and Covenant, which treated church government as of the same importance as 'confession of faith', had the inevitable effect of obscuring the distinction between primary and secondary truths. Church polity had become elevated to the rank of a dogma. Presbyterians were not, of course, alone in this mistake, and generations were to pass before it became clear that differences in the external organisation of Christian churches are not necessarily inimical to the communion of saints of which the Confession itself speaks so beautifully (xxvi). No Scots commissioner of the 1640s could have said with John Duncan two centuries later, 'I'm first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order'.46
Presbyterian Development and Disagreement
This brings us to what lies at the heart of the whole controversy. The Scots at Westminster were not prepared to treat anything as 'secondary' which they believed had the express sanction of Scripture. Where Scripture spoke their conscience was bound. But both Scots and English Independents believed that there was only one clear doctrine of the church in Scripture and that it was their own. Both held to a church polity based on the jus divinum principle, that is to say, on such express biblical sanction, or upon 'good and necessary consequence' (Westminster Confession, i:vi), that they claimed 'divine right' for their position. This had to mean either that 'the Bible itself was a disruptive force', 47 or that participants in the debate were claiming clear scriptural evidence where it did not exist.
The Scots at Westminster were, at this point, scarcely consistent with their own history. They spoke of government by presbytery as though their polity had emerged simply and directly from the New Testament at the time of the Reformation, and as though it was a monolith that had equal authority for its every part. But this was not the case. The subordination of church courts — presbytery to synod, and synod to a general assembly — was something which had not emerged in Scotland until the late 1570s and the 1580s. No one had claimed a jus divinum for such a synodical structure at the time of the Reformation itself.
Definite beliefs on 'the eldership' had developed gradually in Scotland. In the Second Book of Discipline (1578) 'the eldership' is a term which refers both to an individual kirk session and to the assembly of a whole neighbourhood with its members drawn from several congregations. 48These communal or neighbourhood elderships, which only gradually became identified by the name 'presbytery', appear to have been common in the larger towns and country areas and in a number of cases there was clearly no assembly of the elders in a local congregation at all. James Kirk, who has elucidated this confused subject, writes: 'The communal eldership or presbytery, in short, was designed to replace individual kirk sessions and was based not on doctrinaire abstractions but on the need to solve practical problems'.49The English Puritan leader, Thomas Cartwright, on the other hand, writing at the same period, believed that 'in every particular church there ought to be a presbytery', 50 to which even the power of excommunication belonged. An assembly comprised of 'the meetings of the elders of a few churches' he calls simply a 'conference'. In both Cartwright and the Scots leaders of the 1580s, there is the clear principle of churches 'communicating together' but there was no attempt to tie each point of church government to a proof text in Scripture. Cartwright notes that there may be need for changes 'in such things as belong not to the essence of the discipline' (i.e. government) as circumstances require.
The pressure of the controversy in the 1640s had the effect of pushing men to claim more precise scriptural authority for each part of their positions on church government. But in connection with the above, the Scots at Westminster had problems asserting a jus divinum for presbytery at both congregational and neighbourhood levels. When, as Baillie reported, they 'asserted a congregational eldership, for governing the private affairs of the congregation, from the eighteenth of Matthew', they were 'censured grievously' by correspondence from their own side in Scotland. The veteran David Calderwood wrote to tell them 'that our Books of Discipline admits of no Presbytery or Eldership but one'. Calderwood was alarmed that the commissioners, in agreeing to a congregational eldership, were allowing something which would be 'a great step to Independency'. There was surely some confusion in the minds of the Scots over what had been involved in their own earlier tradition. According to Baillie, Henderson acknowledged the truth of Calderwood's criticism and Baillie confessed to his correspondent, 'We are in a peck of troubles with it'.51
The subject of the eldership was also a problem for the majority at Westminster in another respect. From 1561, while the Church of Scotland had distinguished between ministers and seniors or elders who 'preach not the Word, nor minister the Sacraments', both were regarded as possessing the same office. Although the Second Book of Discipline again reveals some uncertainty, this view prevailed in Scotland and the Scots commissioners were taken aback when, not the Independents but the majority in the Westminster Assembly, refused to allow the proof texts which warrant the work and office of presbyters (ministers) to be used as the warrant for the eldership. Only general scripture references were used for the latter. They were 'other church governors' which 'reformed churches commonly call elders'.52 This alarmed the Scots, and some of the English Presbyterians, chiefly because it meant that an office integral to their divine-right view of presbytery was being accepted by the Assembly on a basis other than that of express scripture warrant. 53
The Assembly went the length of accepting the Eldership as "warranted" by Scripture, but it did not declare it to be prescribed by Scripture as essential to Church Government, and the proof-texts adopted did not include 1 Timothy 5:17, which to the Scots was the most important of all.54
The Scots interpreted the failure of the majority to accept the proof texts they advanced for the office of the elder in the same way as they viewed the failure of the Independents to accept a subordination of church courts: they were not doing justice to Scripture. But the Scots were themselves unable to consider that the majority might in fact be showing scriptural wisdom in refusing to approach all questions of church government in terms of 'divine right'. While coming down on the presbyterian side, the majority repeatedly refused to allow the 'proof-texts' which were urged by the Scots and some others. Thomas Coleman, one of that majority, was not representative of his brethren on all points but there was evidently considerable sympathy for some of his words preached before the House of Commons in July 1645. Coleman argued that the insistence upon divine right by the two opposing parties — the Scottish commissioners and the Independents — was the main hindrance to any unity over church government at the Assembly and urged: 'Establish as few things by divine right, as can well be ... Let all precepts, held out as divine institutions, have clear Scriptures'.55
Far from being impressed with such words, the Scots probably regarded the main failure at Westminster to have been the extent to which the Assembly refused to give divine right to the system of church polity which was approved. Dr Wayne Spear, who has looked closely at this whole area, believes that 'of fourteen controversial issues which were important to the Scottish Commissioners,' only two were given the basis of a divine right by the Assembly.56For all the rest of those issues, one was not approved at all, while the others were only given the degree of authority which belongs to that which is recommended or regarded as permissible. Spear concludes that Westminster's published documents on church government:
Embodied the essence of presbyterianism ... the carefully formulated language, however, makes only the mildest of claims for this system; it is the language of permission. The features set forth are the central features of the Scottish pattern of church government. The failure to assert jus divinum with regard to them must be taken as clear indication that the Scots did not rigourously demand full satisfaction from the Westminster Assembly. They were convinced that the presbyterian system rested on the foundation of divine authority as expressed in Scripture. Failing to persuade a majority of the Assembly of that, or at least not wanting to alienate those who were unpersuaded, the Scots accepted a document which fell far short of their desires.57
This quotation commends the Scots for a measure of moderation, and it has to be said that at certain points they — and notably Henderson — were for moderation. But it may also be argued that the Scots' policy of wanting to prove their whole position by means of detailed appeal to Scripture seriously weakened the whole cause of Puritan unity. The Scots commissioners repeatedly appeared to claim more for their position than the scriptural evidence would bear and in so doing made the accommodation which they wanted with the Independents impossible. Even such an author as sympathetic to the Scots as A. H. Drysdale, writes: 'A leading blunder of those who guided the movement, was their too prolonged discussion of the subject of Church government, and their aiming at too much in the circumstances'. 58As a result of this, in the unresolved differences between the Presbyterians and Independents, the Scots' goodwill towards the latter, noted earlier, evaporated and by April 1644 we find Robert Baillie writing in his private correspondence, 'likely ... we will be forced to deal with them as open enemies'.59Certainly, the Scots' exasperation with the Independents for their refusal to be comprehended within a national church led them into a type of opposition which made reconciliation impossible. The Independents and the 'sectaries' were lumped together and the former blamed for the rise of the latter.60A. F. Mitchell, nineteenth-century Scots historian of the Assembly, considered it to be a question worthy of investigation 'whether England was in any sense ripe for Presbytery in the middle of the seventeenth century, and whether our countrymen, by their over-keeness in pressing it, did not cast away a good chance of a more moderate, but more stable settlement'.61Richard Baxter made the same point more forcefully. For him the period under discussion proved the maxim, 'Overdoing is the ordinary way of Undoing'.62 In his autobiography, written at a later point in the seventeenth century, he censures the Independents as 'dividers' but proceeds:
And it must be acknowledged also impartially, that some of the Presbyterian ministers frightened the sectaries into this fury by the unpeaceableness and impatiency of their minds. They ran from libertinism into the other extreme, and were so little sensible of their own infirmity, that they would not have those tolerated who were not only tolerable but worthy instruments and members in the churches ... All men of sound experience and wisdom have long told the world, that we must be 'united in things necessary', which all Christians agree in, or not at all. But nothing shorter than the Assembly's Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and presbytery, would serve the turn with some. Their principles were that no others should be tolerated; which set the Independents on how to grasp the sword! They (Presbyterians) were still crying out on the magistrate that he was irreligious for suffering sects, and because he did not bring men to conform. And now they cannot be tolerated themselves to preach, nor scarce to dwell in the land.63
The Aftermath of the Solemn League and Covenant
The implications of what has been discussed above need to be seen in the context of the history which followed the convening of the Westminster Assembly. By 1646 the united forces of the English Parliament and the Scots had defeated Charles I. Sir Jacob Astley, one of the last of the Cavaliers to surrender, told his conquerors, 'You have done your work now and may go and play, unless you fall out among yourselves.' Soon the members of the alliance did indeed fall out. The Scots wanted the restoration of the king (whose Scottish birth they could not forget), along with a national presbyterian church in both nations. After long prevarications by the king and many hesitations by the English Parliament, a temporarily dominant Scottish party formed a secret treaty with Charles and invaded England to put him back on the throne in 1648. But Oliver Cromwell and much of the army which he had made into both a fighting and a religious force had lost all trust in a monarch whose word had so repeatedly proved false. Nor did they want a church settlement which offered little or no liberty of conscience. Cromwell defeated the Scots under the Duke of Hamilton at Preston, then, faced with a hostile Parliament, he had 140 of its members expelled, and put events in train which led to the execution of Charles I in January 1649.
The death of Charles I united all sections of the Scottish nation against Cromwell and in Scotland Charles II was at once proclaimed king of the whole of Britain. The twenty-year-old monarch in exile was then brought from Holland to Scotland where a commitment for Presbyterianism was secured from him before he was crowned at Scone in 1650. The same year saw Cromwell and his Ironsides in Scotland, not at first to fight, but rather, in the words of John Buchan, 'to find a common ground of agreement between the presbyterians and his independents, to see royalism crushed in the north, and the Scottish people ranged alongside England in the making of a Christian polity'.64Accordingly, he treated the people of Scotland, 'as distinct from their army, not as enemies but as misguided friends'. But it was now that the prejudices created through the much publicised dissensions at the Westminster Assembly bore full fruit. Olive branches offered to the godly in the North were treated with scorn. Cromwell was a 'greeting (i.e., weeping) devil', 'that fox', and his men an 'army of Sectaries and blasphemers'.65 His words to the Scots ministers, 'I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken', were met with total silence. 66
After fruitless weeks of attempted negotiations in the summer of 1650, the Scots army followed Cromwell's apparently retreating army to Dunbar where they were defeated with 3,000 dead and 10,000 taken prisoner on September 3. On the English side the battle cry was 'the Lord of Hosts' and on the Scottish, 'The Covenant'. Such was the nadir of the Solemn League agreed between the Christian representatives of the two nations only seven years earlier. In 1651 a re-organised Scots army, under Charles II, attempted to re-establish what they saw as the main objectives of that League by a further invasion of England. Defeated at Worcester, all further hopes on the Scots side were ended until the death of Cromwell in 1658 and the subsequent restoration of their presbyterian king to the English throne in 1660. Only then did the monarch, who thought the throne 'worth a Covenant or two', reveal his colours in a manner no one could mistake. The Solemn League and Covenant was burned by the common hangman. Gillespie's grave at Kirkcaldy was broken up and the inscriptions on Henderson's in Edinburgh obliterated. Much of Scotland and England exclaimed, with John Evelyn, the diarist, 'Oh prodigious change'.67 The Puritan age was over and 'merrie England' was to join the king in laughing at Presbyterians and Independents alike.
Later History of the Scottish Commissioners
All the commissioners had left London before the Duke of Hamilton had invaded England in the short-lived Second Civil War of 1648. Henderson went in the Spring of 1646 to join in negotiations with Charles I who was then with the Scots' army at Newcastle. He hoped that Charles I could yet be persuaded to 'take the Covenant' and follow the advice of Parliament. 68 Confronted by failure, Baillie reported to his cousin on the Continent, 'Mr. Henderson is dying, most of heartbreak, at Newcastle'.69 A voyage back to Edinburgh saw a recovery of Henderson's cheerfulness but not of his health. 'I am near the end of my race, basting home,' he told a friend, 'and there was never a school boy more desirous to have play than I am to leave this world'.70 The foremost statesman among the Scots who went to Westminster, he died on 19 August 1646.
George Gillespie left London for his Kirkcaldy parish in 1647. It was his leadership that same year which steered the Confession of Faith through the General Assembly at Edinburgh. But though only thirty-five years of age, he and others knew that his work was done. On 27 September 1648 Rutherford, recently returned to St Andrews, wrote to him, 'Ye will not sleep long in the dust before the daybreak. It is a far shorter piece of the hinder end of the night to you than to Abraham and Moses ... Look to the east, the dawning of glory is near'. 71 Gillespie entered the dawn on 17 December 1648.
The story of the Scots commissioners who lived longer is the sadder one. Happily united, as it seemed, at Westminster, their latter years were marked by strong divisions among themselves and in the Church to which they belonged. The controversy began over the question of relationships with men who were closest to the monarchy. The Scots Presbyterian leaders generally had not supported Hamilton's abortive invasion. His secret treaty with Charles I was viewed with suspicion as were the worldly men of loose morals — 'malignants' — who had supported it. But, as already said, the execution of Charles I brought wider unity in Scotland though the question remained vexed how far malignants should be allowed to serve in the army which, on behalf of Charles II, prepared to face Cromwell at Dunbar. Prior to that battle even English cavaliers were fighting with the Scottish army, one of whom died in a skirmish with the words on his lips, 'Damme, I'll go to my King'. The stricter side among the Presbyterians were for 'purging' their army of such elements, and, this done, some, at least, trusted that 'they had an army of saints, and that they could not be beaten'.72 After the mortification of defeat at Dunbar, more Presbyterians were to put the national danger before that of malignancy and a commission of the General Assembly passed resolutions to give allowance of broader support for their covenanted king against Cromwell. From this point the Scots Church was divided. The large majority, who agreed with the commission's judgment, were called 'Resolutioners', and their number included two of the commissioners at Westminster, Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale, and Robert Baillie. Prominent among the minority who complained against the resolutions, and were named 'Protesters', were Rutherford and Johnston of Wariston. It was not that the Protesters were less committed to monarchy in principle, nor did they sympathise with Cromwell, but they wanted support for Charles II to be conditional upon his submission to God and the Covenant. Such submission had to include his repudiation of courtiers whose lives showed no 'affection in the cause of God'.
In this division of judgment, old friends now became opponents and feelings ran so high that the General Assembly itself fell into disarray and was to cease to meet from 1651 to 1691. In the opinion of one writer this controversy 'put ill blood into our Church life, which a century and a half did not expel'.73While both Resolutioners and Protesters were wrong at some points, the latter were better judges of the real situation. Charles II was indeed simply using Presbyterianism as a lever to gain dominion in Scotland and England. But the strength of language used by Rutherford and others on the Protester side added to the alienation of men who held the greatest things in common. In a letter of 1656, when Scotland remained under Cromwell's control, Rutherford wrote to Simeon Ashe, the London Puritan leader:
You may be pleased to believe me, that men who have borrowed your ear to blacken the godly in the land, and who have now deserted us and the Covenant, and joined feet with the Malignant party, and now have owned the present powers, and brought the entrants to the ministry to give under their hand a subscription, an engagement (the writ calls it, a resolution to live peaceably and unoffensively under the present Government), so that no holy man can get any maintenance in the land but such as will sinfully comply (and such as cannot, what an entry they have to that holy calling to embrace it!), these men seek more their own things, than the things of Jesus Christ. And being backed by the whole multitude of the promiscuous generality, throughout the land, who are for their way, as of old the prelatic conformists did, they do persecute the godly, and in pulpits and presbyteries declaim against us as implacable and separatists.74
To counteract the effect of this letter Baillie, from the Resolutioner side, also wrote to Ashe, 75 and Ashe, in turn, advised Rutherford to lay aside such 'tartness of language' and to beware of the effects this dispute was having upon church government. Rutherford was unmoved and in his preface 'To the Christian Reader' in his book, A Survey of the Survey of that Summe of Church Discipline, penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker, published in 1658, he told the world of the deplorable state of the Scottish ministry and of how faithful men were "'troubled on every side" (in the streets, pulpits, in divers synods, presbyteries, etc.) more than under prelacy'.
Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 it was inevitable that the forthright Protesters would be the first to feel the anger which the king and his friends had previously kept hidden. Charles had long since come to the conclusion that Presbyterianism 'was not a religion for a gentleman'. Rutherford was deposed from his post in the University of St Andrews and summoned to Edinburgh to face a charge of high treason at the next session of Parliament. Had he answered that summons in person he would probably have suffered execution as did his friend and fellow Protester, James Guthrie. But he was already dying: 'I behove to answer my first summons; ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings or great folk come'.
Wariston was not to be permitted to leave the world so privately. In 1660 a price was put on his head and it was declared treason for any to shelter him. Wandering in France, his health broken, he was at length captured, sentenced to death in London and shipped to Leith. From there, on 8 June 1663, he was made to walk, bareheaded, the long-ascending road to the Tolbooth in Edinburgh: 'Up that hard way, this broken man, wrecked in brain and body, stumbled, while those who had come to see forgot their very hatred of him in very pity'.76 From that prison he was taken and hung on 22 July. In the dark years that were to follow Christians often remembered his last words of exhortation from the scaffold:
I beseech you all who are the people of God, not to scare at suffering for the interest of Christ, but be encouraged to suffer for Him, for I assure you, in the name of the Lord, He will bear your charges ... O pray, pray! Praise, praise, praise!77
Robert Baillie died in Glasgow the year before Wariston's execution but not before his eyes were opened to the greatness of his mistake in ever trusting the king — the man for whom 'We (Scots) had lost much blood at Dunbar, Worcester, and elsewhere'.78 To his amazement, Lauderdale, his fellow commissioner at Westminster whom he had then called 'good Maitland', instead of admitting any such mistake, gave his full support to the new order. Baillie feared Lauderdale was 'a prime transgressor', and that 'a fearful persecution' lay ahead for the godly. In that persecution, as well as in the licentiousness of the court, Lauderdale, the one-time supporter of the Covenant, became a foremost figure. He was rewarded with a dukedom but fell from favour two years before his death in 1682, 'loathed and abhorred by all the godly in the land as a profane irreligious man, yea as a vile apostate'.79
A confusion of politics with Christianity had much to do with the troubles in which Christians were so much involved in this period. This is not to say that Christians ought all to stand apart from politics, nor is it to deny that magistrates and nations have responsibilities towards God. But the degree to which the civil and the spiritual were entangled at this period cannot be defended from Scripture. Politics requires elements of compromise and ambiguity and, as S. R. Gardiner wrote, 'In politics, as in all other spheres of life, results are to be traced less to facts which actually exist than to the assumptions relating to those facts in the minds of the actors'.80
The Solemn League and Covenant was at once both a civil and religious treaty and it was, in part, for that reason that it could be interpreted so diversely. Both Scots Presbyterians and English Independents accused the other of breaking that Covenant. With justification, the Scots believed the language of the treaty favoured a church government much closer to Presbyterianism than to Independency. The common view in the North was no doubt expressed by John Guthrie when he said, 'Independency was to be brought to Presbytery'.81 But room for latitude of interpretation had been deliberately allowed in the Solemn League by the inclusion of the stipulation that the reformation of the church should be 'according to the Word of God' and, in any case, as Cromwell argued in Scotland in 1650, was it not Christianity itself which lay at the heart of the Covenant and were not the Scots, in their support of such a malignant king as Charles II, opposing the main thing? Cromwell's case that he was defending the substance of the Covenant had weight to it. 82Yet for the Scots it was this man and his army which was the one power 'that now hindered the reformation of religion in England and the work of uniformity'.83
Confusion and inconsistencies were inherent in the Scots Presbyterians' position given their commitment to a national church establishment. It was an attempt to impose a church with New Testament standards on a populace utterly unwilling (as the Restoration era proved) to accept them. Puritanism or evangelical Christianity was never the national religion in either England or Scotland, and no small part of the dissension among real Christians was due to the acceptance of a comprehensive church membership. As already noted, it was one of the main issues in the debate with the Independents. Again, it was the mixed nature of the Church of Scotland which so aggravated the dissension between Resolutioners and Protesters. The worldly sided with the Resolutioners but the Protesters, who themselves held the common view of a national church, did not know how to answer the question which David Dickson put to James Guthrie. Why, Dickson asked, did Guthrie (and his fellow Protesters) want no co-operation with malignants in the struggle for the king, while they were willing to 'communicate and have fellowship in the Kirk with them with whom he would not fight, as if there were required greater purity in the camp than in the Kirk'.84
Undoubtedly this confusion of church with politics was related to Old Testament theocratic views. It was one thing for God to institute a covenant nation and another for uninspired seventeenth-century Christians to do so. While Scots leaders, such as Rutherford, 85understood that Mosaic judicial law was no longer binding on nations which are not theocracies, they apparently accepted the idea that nations can secure divine favour by means of national covenants. This, in turn, encouraged them to see the Covenant enforced by the civil powers acting in the interests of Christ. So the Solemn League required all over eighteen years of age in England to accept its provisions by oath and Baillie tells us that great penalties were attached to breach of the Covenant in Scotland. The English Parliament of 1648 made criticism of Presbyterianism an imprisonable offence and, in similar spirit, Charles II on his coronation by the Scots at Scone in 1651, was presented with a sword 'for the defence of the Faith of Christ' and required to take an oath which bound him 'to root out all heretics, and enemies of the true worship of God, that shall be convict by the true Kirk of God'.86
There are indications that by the 1650s some Scottish ministers of the gospel were becoming conscious of the dangers of being so involved in the affairs of state. Robert Blair, for instance, declined to act as a chaplain to the king in 1650 because 'he did now begin to have some scruples that ministers meddled too much in estate affairs, and did spend much time in waiting upon civil judicatories and courts, which might be better spent at home waiting on their charges in preaching, catechising and visiting families'.87
We learn from this period that intolerance is always more injurious when it believes erroneously that it has Scripture for its justification. The person, or party, who falls into that mistake sincerely supposes his intolerance to be a biblical virtue and so the likelihood of accommodation with those of another view becomes remote. In an age when a high view of the Bible prevailed, it was one of Satan's devices to make men identify their own dogmatism with the Bible and so to discredit Christianity itself. 'How much the work of the Gospel and the ordinances of Christ, suffer through our divisions,' Patrick Gillespie wrote to Dickson in 1657. Though the ministers of Scotland 'were so much one in judgement', their disputes on the things in which they differed was bound to lead 'sober men' to regard them 'to be very unsober spirits, and of extremely rigid principles toward all others who differ from us in the least things'.88
Perhaps the sincerity of the men who fell into this mistake needs emphasising for there is no place for accusations of hypocrisy. The zeal of such men as Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie for unity was real and both spoke fervently on the subject. 'O brethren,' wrote Gillespie while at Westminster, 'we shall be one in heaven, let us pack up differences in this place of our pilgrimage, the best way we can'.89 And again, addressing the House of Lords in 1645: "'Let that day be darkness, let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it" (Job 3:4), in which it shall be said that the children of God in Britain are enemies and persecutors of each other'. 90 But these words are reminders of how unwittingly men can hinder the attainment of their own ideals.
We have concentrated more upon aspects of the weakness of Presbyterian leaders than upon their strengths. The Westminster Assembly constituted the highest point in the renewed understanding and re-stating of the Christian faith which began at the Reformation and the Scots were among the most eminent of its leaders. Richard Baxter, not given to blind praise, believed that 'the Christian world, since the days of the apostles, had never a synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this synod and the Synod of Dort were'.91But if men of this calibre were not free from mistakes, misunderstanding and failure, we have a powerful reminder of the command of Christ to all his disciples, 'Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren' (Matthew 23:10). Perhaps the controversies of the period we have discussed were permitted to make this lesson plain. 'It is God, and not the wisdom of our most wise and best men, that will save us,' wrote Baillie. 92 'Let us pray more, and look less to men', Rutherford urged the year before his death. 93And John Livingstone wrote to his former parishioners in 1671: 'Our ministers were our glory, and I fear our idol, and the Lord hath stained the pride of our glory'.94
God's ways are not our ways. It has often been thought that the restoration of Charles II and its consequences were catastrophic for Christianity in Britain. Certainly the power and ascendency of the Puritan cause which England and Scotland had seen in the 1640s were over. It no longer had the support of parliaments or armies. But it is arguable that Christianity came to shine more truly in its native spirit in those who had lost all standing in the eyes of the governments of this world. In Baxter's phrase, 'Most men are best in low estate'. The fragrance and honour attached to the name of Covenanters has come down to us not from the 1640s or 50s but from the days when a remnant proved afresh that Christians would rather suffer than sin. Part of James Guthrie's sentence in 1661 was that his head, once severed, should be placed above the West Bow Port (gate) in Edinburgh. There it remained through eighteen years but Guthrie's hope that 'his head would preach more on the Port than ever in the pulpit', was fulfilled. 95It was not so much the documents that came out of Westminster which wedded Scotland to Presbyterianism as it was the lives of those who suffered after 1660.
Perhaps the paramount lesson to be drawn is to note how the balance of biblical truth was lost in the extended debates on church order. Uniformity in church government was treated as though it were essential to Christian communion. And it was so pressed that what was, at most, no more than a secondary truth, endangered what was primary. This happened not only between Presbyterians and Independents — 'sectaries' — but among the Presbyterians themselves. The contestants of the 1650s, said one who knew them, 'began to look upon others (especially the common people that were professors) rather as of different religion, than of different persuasions about things that were not fundamental'.96Cromwell over-simplified issues, but he was surely closer to the New Testament in believing that what mattered most was the unity of 'honest sober Christians'. As he wrote from Bristol after the victory of the Parliamentary army there in September 1645:
Presbyterians, Independents, all have here the same spirit of faith and prayer; the same presence and answer; they agree here, have no names of difference; pity it is it should be otherwise anywhere! All that believe, have the real unity, which is more glorious; because inward, and spiritual, in the Body, and to the Head.97
It is not in a biography of Cromwell, however, that we get one of the most balanced treatments of this point but rather in the biography of Alexander Henderson:
Cromwell on his side judged presbyterianism unfairly. A system which to Scotsmen stood for ordered liberty, democratic in spirit and operation, he suspected, and Milton more than suspected, to be a new engine of ecclesiastical oppression. Their bitter experiences under Laud's tyranny produced a reaction which led them to emphasise individual liberty of conscience, to reject authority, especially clerical authority, and to distrust elaborate organisation. But the Scots had only themselves to blame that Cromwell's suspicions deepened when he found them resolute against toleration either in the army or out of it. Much as he disliked their insistence on their form of Church government he would probably have accepted presbyterianism if it had been coupled with the vital concession of toleration. But the Scots were blind to the teaching of events: they could not or would not see that from the time when the Independent party rose to influence the war which they helped to wage was not only defeating the king, it was defeating themselves, for the policy of Presbyterian Uniformity then became impossible except by being modified or enlarged so as to allow room for the new forms of opinion which had grown up among their English allies.98
The 1650s ought to have provided proof to all the Scots that their insistence on a series of church courts, ultimately subordinate to a General Assembly, was not, after all, so vital to the real work of the churches. Despite the suspension of annual General Assemblies, a widespread work of conversion was going on in Scotland. James Kirkton who reports it, indeed believed that Cromwell (then Lord Protector in Scotland) 'did no bad office' in not permitting meetings of the General Assembly for 'the Assembly seemed to be more set upon establishing themselves than promoting religion'.99
As the same author said, there is a difference between external and internal power. The church can prosper without the former but not without the latter. Rutherford, too, makes a notable admission in his reply to Thomas Hooker to which we have already referred. Ashe had bidden Rutherford to show due deference to the government of his Church. But in 1658 Rutherford wrote: 'Nor doth it belong to the essence of presbyterial government, that all members of this Church, and inferior judicatures, should so submit to the superior respective judicatures, that if they be grieved with the sentence, they ought to acquiesce thereunto ... nor do our brethen justly father it upon the general assembly, Anno 1648, Sess. 30. For our Church acknowledgeth no subjection nor subordination of inferior judicatures unto superior, but in the Lord ... It is to make synods and ecclesiastical judicatures lords of our faith, which the Reformed Churches detest'.100It is true that the Westminster Confession (xxxi:3) makes this kind of proviso but if the Presbyterians had shown at Westminster how such individual liberty of conscience was to be exercised, and how it would operate in practice in presbyterial government, one of the main fears of the Independents might have been met.
Too often in the pressure of controversy between Christians the main issue was lost sight of though it emerged clearly when persecution returned under Charles II. As Hewison has written, 'The struggle was not for a form of Church government merely ... The fight was for freedom, morality, virtue and religion'.101
The seventeenth century saw the fullest and most prolonged attempt that has ever been made to demonstrate that a full system of church government is laid down in Scripture which ought to command universal obedience. With variations, 'divine right' was claimed by Episcopalians as well as by some Presbyterians and Independents. Indeed it was the uniformity which Episcopalians attempted to impose in the 1630s which led to the revolution which followed. The wearisomeness of all the subsequent debates on church government did harm as we have seen. It also encouraged some of later generations to adopt a kind of agnosticism on all questions of order. Yet the seventeenth-century contention did good in offering final proof that no unanimous judgment among Christians is ever to be attainable on this subject, nor is it necessary to attempt to attain it in the cause of 'Christian unity'. As Jeremiah Burroughs argued in his Irenicum of 1646, the idea that, 'There can be no agreement without uniformity', is a 'dividing principle'. The spiritual prosperity of churches, and their ability to co-exist in Christian fellowship, is not dependent upon the possession of identical views on church government.
Eighteenth-century evangelicals were right to hold the opinion expressed by Thomas Scott in 1798, 'I believe all parties were wrong in many things, last century; and it seems absurd to make unqualified approbation of any party, so long since, the sine qua non of ministering in the gospel of Christ at present'.102 That lesson, it may be remembered was challenged by the Scottish seceders in 1741, alarmed that Whitefield 'had no doctrine of the ius divinum of any particular form of church government', 103but how different the history of both Britain and America would have been if the 1740s had brought a revival of debates on church order instead of a revival of apostolic evangelism! Inadequate some of Whitefield's views may have been but he surely had his priorities right. 'I despair of a greater unity among the churches,' he wrote to a fellow minister in 1742, 'till a greater measure of the Spirit be poured from on high. Hence, therefore, I am resolved simply to preach the gospel of Christ, and leave others to quarrel by and with themselves. To contend, where there is no probability of convincing, only feeds and adds fuel to an unhallowed fire. Love, forbearance, longsuffering, and frequent prayer to the Lord Jesus, is the best way to put it out'.104
Whitefield probably did not know it, but he was expressing the very lesson which John Howe had preached at the passing of one of the last of the Puritan leaders, William Bates, in 1699. Howe concluded his funeral sermon with a message of hope:
Atheism, scepticism, infidelity, worldliness and formality, have quite swallowed up our religion… But though it should seem generally to have expired, let us believe it shall revive. When our confidences and vain boasts cease ... and one sort ceases to magnify this church, and another that, and an universal death is come upon us, then (and I am afraid not till then) is to be expected a glorious resurrection, not of this or that party: for living, powerful religion, when it recovers, will disdain the limits of a party. Nor is it to be thought, that religion, modified by the devised distinctions of this or that party, will ever be the religion of the world. But the same power that makes us return into a state of life, will bring us into a state of unity, in divine light, and love ... then as there is one body, and one Spirit, will that mighty Spirit so animate, and form this body, as to make it everywhere amiable, self-recommending, and capable of spreading, and propagating itself, and to 'increase with the increase of God.105