Perhaps what is most unfortunate about this is that real history, rather than hagiography, is the most practical kind of history. Indeed, when the imagined romanticism of the assembly is stripped away and we see these divines for who they were—greatly gifted, but struggling against their own sin and finitude—we are reminded that God used sinners to advance His kingdom.
My experience over the years as a confessional Presbyterian has been that many who subscribe to or draw heavily on the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism) as the basis for their theological views understand the standards in a manner largely disembodied from the historical context in which they were written. For that reason, it has been often overlooked, or at least greatly underappreciated, that the Westminster Assembly (the ministerial gathering where the standards were crafted) took place at an all-important time in English and Protestant history—namely, the English Civil War (1642–51).
For those who love theology, the temptation can be strong to bypass the assembly’s historical context and to focus on interpreting and applying its doctrinal truths to the contemporary church. Grasping the historical context can be perceived as a necessary evil endured for the sake of appeasing church historians. However, understanding the historical context is integral, not incidental, for a full and robust interpretation, exposition, and application of the confessional, catechetical, and ecclesiastical documents that arose from the Westminster Assembly. Indeed, without an understanding of the assembly’s context, these confessional documents are easily misinterpreted, and the richest of components of these confessional formulations are certainly overlooked. This article will explore the historical context of the Westminster Assembly and end with three reasons why all those who draw on the standards and want to understand their theology should continue studying the assembly’s historical context.
POLITICAL CONTEXT OF THE ASSEMBLY
The Westminster Assembly took place after a decade of reform under King Charles I and Archbishop William Laud, who persecuted members of the Puritan movement. In 1637, Laud attempted to reform Scotland by mandating that the Scottish church utilize a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been revised in a distinctly Roman Catholic direction. The people rebelled, and a full-blown Scottish revolution ensued. Unfortunately for Charles, his invasions in 1638 and 1639 failed as most of the soldiers were more sympathetic to the Scots than they were to the king. This forced Charles to call Parliament to raise an army to fight the Scots.
The fact that Charles called Parliament in the first place is a testimony to the direness of his situation. Indeed, Charles had not called Parliament, and thus he had ruled alone, for eleven years, a period known as the Personal Rule, after his dissolution of the 1629 Parliament because of its growing sympathy to Puritanism. After this suspension of Parliament, many Puritans left for New England in anticipation that Charles and his fellow anti-Calvinists were headed for a collision with Puritans. By 1640, however, the king had no money and was forced to call Parliament in an effective admission that the Personal Rule had failed. The recall of Parliament in 1640 was a disaster for the king, and the next Parliament was even worse for him, ending with a radical gathering demanding “root and branch” reform of the church and state.
In 1641, Archbishop Laud was arrested and put on trial. In January 1642, Charles fled from London to Oxford after a series of unsuccessful attempts to seize political control of the country. This geographical departure effectively reinforced, and opened up physical space between, the two parties. Surrendering London, the political stronghold, to their enemies had devastating implications for Charles and his Royalist supporters. Although war was now likely, it was obvious that the Royalists were in a weaker position. Men and money were on Parliament’s side, and the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell was dominant over Royalist forces. By January 1647, Charles was captured and in the custody of Parliament. While the king had been apprehended, there was significant division over what to do next. Some demanded that he be executed, while others wanted a compromise. The stalemate was finally resolved on December 6, 1648, when New Model Army soldiers prevented eighty-five members of Parliament who were against the execution of the king from entering the House of Commons (an event known as Pride’s Purge), effectively guaranteeing Charles’ fate. He was tried for treason and beheaded on January 30, 1649. To date, he is the only English monarch ever to be executed.