God's Ambassadors: A Plan for the Presbyteries

Article by   October 2016
He shall be examined touching his skill in the Originall tongues, and his tryall to be made by reading the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and rendring some portion of some into Latine; And if he be defective in them, enquiry shall be made the more strictly after his other learning, And whether he hath skill in Logick and in Phylosophie. What Authors in Divinity he hath read and is best acquainted with; And tryall shall be made in his knowledge of the grounds of Religion, and of his ability to defend the Orthodox Doctrine contained in them, against all unsound and erronious opinions, especially these of the present age: of his skill in the sense and meaning of such places of Scripture, as shall be proposed unto him, in cases of Conscience; and in the Chronologie of the Scripture, and the Ecclesiasticall History.

-- Rules for examination in The Directory for Ordination (1644).

  The ordination of preachers

It is not easy to supply a war-torn country with sufficient preachers for every community, and for the navy and army as well. This was the experience of the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s during England's civil war, and it was difficult to know what to do about it.

By mid-October 1643 the requests for additional parish ministers had become so urgent that assembly member John Ley (1584-1662) mentioned the possibility of recommending men for ministry who were not yet ordained as priests - or as most members of the assembly would prefer - as ministers. Ley's suggestion assumed that regular preaching in a parish could be done without ordination. William Gouge (1575-1653), the first to speak to the motion, offered the strongest opposition to the idea: "Not only for the sacraments, but for the preaching of the word there must be an outward call," which for Gouge entailed ordination.

Over two days of discussion the assembly was divided both as to its estimate of the most pressing needs of the war-torn church and the best remedy to meet those needs. A group of men citing English, European, and patristic precedent, suggested that candidates for the ministry or preaching deacons could be sent to preach. But other members countered that the request that had come to the assembly was for men to officiate a cure; people wanted pastors for the parishes and not simply preachers for their pulpits. Thomas Wilson (c. 1601-1653) retorted that in cases of dire necessity, a parochial ministry of word could continue without a ministry of the sacraments: people do not "perish for want of sacraments, but they 'perish for want of knowledge'" (Hos. 4:6).

But how to promote that knowledge? William Rayner (c.1595-1666) thought the assembly's action in examining and sending a man might constitute a sufficiently official outward call. Lazarus Seaman (d. 1675) suggested that Parliament could temporarily serve as a kind of commissioning body. Wilson, a presbyterian, and Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), a congregationalist, thought that even without such formalities gifted lay people could be sent to preach in needy parishes. As many as nine members spoke in favour of men preaching, under certain conditions, without an outward ministerial call.

And yet theory did not easily translate into practice. After considering the possibilities of a special commission of ministers to ordain candidates for the ministry (shot down by nervous congregationalists), or ordination at the hands of expatriate French Reformed ministers in London (dismissed by Jean de la March [1585-1651]), or shipping men north for ordination by the Scottish kirk (criticized by the English presbyterian, Seaman), three of those who were hypothetically in favour of sending unordained men to preach now spoke in favor of waiting: the assembly should first develop its own policy for ordination. No one suggested ordination by bishops.

In counseling the assembly to wait, these three additional men formed a majority with the pro-ordination party, which insisted that a preacher have an outward call before being sent to serve in a parish, and that he be ordained by preaching presbyters prior to serving as a pastor. This group also concluded that an opportunity for promptly increasing the pool of ordained men in England was not within immediate reach. They included in their number Thomas Gataker (1574-1654) who, influenced by stories of debates on the subject at the Synod of Dort, was unsure if deacons should ever have been permitted to preach in the English church in the first place and was unconvinced that Bishops really had a right to give a preaching license to someone unordained. William Price (d. 1666) felt constrained to add that the assembly would "doe preaching a great deale of dishonour if we hould that preaching may be without imposition of hands."

It also made sense in the autumn of 1643 to delay a decision about ordination because the two days of debate over the possibility of ordination pro tempore had been interrupted by an order requiring the assembly to cease debating the Thirty-nine Articles and to begin settling the discipline and government of the church. Nonetheless, the insistence in this debate that the assembly come up with orderly, sustainable, and perhaps also respectable solutions to pressing practical problems would continue to characterize the counsel of most of the assembly's older members.

Nevertheless, the difficulty extended even beyond this. Although in hindsight we know that they managed it for a decade, in 1643 the continued examination of every potential preacher in England appeared to be an unsustainable task for the assembly. What is more, most assembly members, while grateful for the opportunity to be agents of an immediate reformation, wanted the work of examination itself to be shifted to the church, where it properly belonged, and could be continued on a more settled basis.

The Directory for Ordination

An examination of the assembly's Directory for Ordination shows that the assembly obviously required the presbyteries to vary somewhat from the assembly's own practice of examination. For example, the Directory altered standard questions posted to examinees to reflect the fact that the candidate for ordination would obviously not already be in orders and would not have officiated in any church prior to his examination.

The Directory might also assume that candidates for the ministry would require a more in-depth examination, as men coming before a presbytery could be unknown quantities and would have limited preaching and no pastoral experience, and that the temporary ordination committee, and later the presbyteries, would not enjoy as broad a network of contacts as did the assembly itself. After all, the assembly could hardly have anticipated that it would continue its own examinations while local presbyteries carried on the same task. What is clear is that the gathering's Directory for Ordination of Ministers contains a synopsis of the assembly's ideals, and probably sheds further light on some of the assembly's own practices as well its vision for later presbyteries, for in drafting proposed rules for incoming or transferring ministers the assembly was undoubtedly drawing on its own experience and reflecting its own examination standards.

The Directory begins with a preface and is followed by nine rules. The preface stresses that it is obvious from the scriptures "that no man ought to take upon him the Office of a Minister of the Gospel, untill he be lawfully called and ordained thereunto." If that is what the word of God requires, the assembly argues, then "the work of Ordination is to be performed with all due care, wisdome, gravity, and solemnity." Those ordaining the preacher are doing God's work and it is clear that the divines are intent on stressing the magnitude of this task. After such a strong statement about the teaching of the scriptures and its significance with respect to ordination, it is remarkable how gently the divines treaded when they actually came to introduce their directives, both the general ones in the preface and the specific rules in the body of the document. They merely state that they "humbly tender these Directions as requisite to bee observed."

In broad outline, the divines first state that the person to be ordained must be nominated by the people of the congregation or commended to the presbytery for a particular place. In either case, he must appear before the presbytery with the appropriate documentation, namely a testimonial (or more than one) which would provide evidence of:

  1. "Taking" or signing the Solemn League and Covenant
  2. Diligence and proficiency in study
  3. University degrees
  4. The amount of time spent in university
  5. Age (the person must be at least twenty-four)
  6. The person's "life and conversation."
It is noteworthy that the assembly was so concerned about a preacher's ability to study. That sermon-making, preaching and pastoring is an intellectual exercise is evidenced in half of the points that the testimonials were to provide. As well, the continued requirement that preachers must be at least twenty-four years indicated that they could not easily enter a pulpit immediately upon graduation from university. These were features that the assembly no doubt looked for in their own perusal of testimonials.

But perhaps the first and sixth points are the most jarring for modern readers. The requirement that a candidate commit himself to the religious and political platform of Parliament (in the form of the Solemn League and Covenant) serves as a kind of date-stamp for this civil war text. Yet in the 1640s there was no thought that the Solemn League and Covenant was to die in a decade. It was seen by many signers as a perpetual agreement between the English and Welsh and their northern and western counterparts in Scotland and Ireland, a guarantee that the three nations would never go to war again over the form and substance of religion, for the simple fact that they would share the same religion. What is more, if the church was to be purged of crypto-Catholics and sectarians, something like this covenant was useful. Nonetheless, this stipulation also kept godly Royalists and Episcopalians out of pulpits and was almost undoubtedly intended by some presbyterians to put pressure on congregationalists also.

The final feature of the required testimonial is striking in what it does not say. Although the variation amounts only to a couple of letters in a word, inquiries about "life and conversation" were significantly different than inquiries about "life and conversion." The assembly wanted sincere Christian preachers, genuine believers in the pulpit, as is seen in their rules. Many puritans did experience dramatic conversions. Yet not once in ten years did the assembly do anything but record matters relating to life and conversation, and they did not want presbyteries doing anything different. Perhaps a study of the surviving testimonials sent in support of the ministers and ordinands who came before the assembly would alter this picture: it is possible that these testimonials indicated explicitly or implicitly (by the character of the one writing the recommendation) that the examinee had a conversion experience. But the assembly certainly does not appear to have ever inquired about conversion narratives or experiences in any way analogous to American congregationalists or to the revival preachers of the First Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical revival in Britain, such as George Whitfield, Gilbert Tennent, or John and Charles Wesley. This is one indication that there were differences among puritans and that the later puritan piety of the early eighteenth century should not be read back into much, perhaps most of mid-seventeenth-century puritanism.

Having satisfied the presbytery with testimonials, the candidate was then to be examined by the presbytery itself. The examiners for the presbytery were to put a series of five questions to him in a logical order. First there would be enquiries "touching the Grace of God in him." (Curiously, William Rathbone [d. 1644], objected to the phrase, but the rest of the assembly was firm: some examination was needed to see if the man was a Christian). Second, he was tested to see if "he be of such holinesse of life as is requisite in a Minister of the Gospel." After all, there are people who are Christians, but have not sufficient growth in grace to serve as examples to other Christians and as shepherds to other sheep. Third, harkening back to the matter of the testimonials, the candidate was to be examined "touching his learning and sufficiency." Fourth, if he was deemed capable of ministry, he was asked about "the evidences of his calling to the holy Ministery." The divines believed that no one could be called who was not gifted, but there were gifted people who might not be called - the call and the gift could not be equated. Fifth, "and in particular," the examiners were to inquire about "his fair and direct calling to that place," a proviso perhaps intended to determine if there was anything untoward in the way in which the candidate came to be preferred over any competitors to the post. 

Having outlined the information to be provided in testimonials and the questions to be asked of candidates, the precise content of the examination was laid out in nine rules. Significantly, most of these rules have been followed in some fashion by presbyterian churches over the centuries, a fact which will have to suffice as an excuse for not offering a full treatment of those rules here.

This article is an extract and adaptation from Chad Van Dixhoorn's forthcoming book, God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the reform of the English pulpit, 1643-1653. Footnotes, references, and fuller discussions of this subject are found there.


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