God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly as Candidates and Credentials Committee

Rules, rules, rules 

The Westminster Assembly had taken upon itself the wonderful but formidable task of examining preachers for ministry in the church. By mid-autumn of 1643 the assembly recognized that it needed to further clarify and solidify its procedures for the examination of ministers. Since the members of the assembly were Reformed men, they did what Reformed people do: they appointed a committee, and after careful deliberation, it returned to the assembly with a list of twenty-one rules.

Each of the rules had an obvious purpose. One, requiring a time of prayer, recognized that the persons examining and the person being examined relied on God's help in order to do their task well. A call for kindness and respect in the second rule acknowledged the position of power (and potential for pride) that the examiners had assumed by virtue of their mandate to examine fellow ministers. Other rules required an environment that was ordered, and not chaotic, permitting full involvement of the committee, but in a manner that would not distract the one being examined. Yet another required fact-checking; it could also reveal something about the man's piety. Something could be learned about a man based on the bishop who had been willing to ordain him. Different stories were implied if hands were laid on a man by the worldly John Bridgeman, the popish Godfrey Goodman, the Calvinist John Williams, or the godly John Prideaux.

The assembly's seventh rule was actually a question: "Whether he will officiate in his own person, viz. by preaching and administration of the sacraments?" The main thrust of the inquiry was to determine if the minister was merely collecting a living for his own income, or if he was hoping to serve as a preacher and pastor of a local congregation. It appeared to be a straight-forward attempt to preclude pluralism, but assembly member Stephen Marshall (1594/5-1655) proposed that with an added phrase, it be specified that the minister would administer the sacraments only after "he hath instructed them & made them fit." Marshall did not want the minister to make a sweeping commitment to administer the sacrament of the Lord's supper without knowing "whether he shall find some that are not fit to receive" it. Thomas Coleman (1597/8-1646) objected to the proposed rule and the proposed amendment, as they presumed that the assembly would advocate both "residency" and a "mixt communion," where pastors would distinguish between parishioners.

Three-dozen speeches followed, with twenty-seven members offering their thoughts, including members who rarely ever spoke in the assembly. The debate was complicated by poor moderating. It was not clear what question was on the floor and speakers did not always indicate if they were speaking about the committee's seventh recommendation about residency or Marshall's proposed revision, which had to do with the administration of the sacraments to worthy participants only.

Nonetheless, it was the eighth proposition, that the minister "hold the church of England for a true church, and the ministry of the church of England a true ministry," that divided the assembly's presbyterian and congregationalists along a ragged line. Supporters of congregational polity thought that a visible church was a local congregation, properly ordered. They would admit that there were true ministries in churches, and true churches in England. But to require the admission that the church of England was itself a true church threatened their basic ecclesiological commitments and felt like an episcopal subscription formula. Supporters of presbyterian polity responded that the Scriptures did refer to the visible church as a regional aggregate of congregations, and that a true church could have dirty spots in it. The congregationalists were given the floor to make their case, but older members of the assembly would not brook any ambiguous formula, such as the ones that Philip Nye (bap. 1595, d. 1672) proposed, which would also leave room for separatism. Proposition eight was duly voted.

The remaining rules were "passed without any debate":

9. If he give an affirmative; then his testimonial to be taken into consideration, whether valid or no.
10. If any thing be doubtful about the testimonial, then the committee to report upon it to the assembly.
11. What authors he hath been versed in.
12. Where he hath officiated, and why he leaves.
13. What skill he hath in the tongues and logic.
14. Trial of his knowledge in the chief grounds in religion.
15. That he be put to preach if he have leisure.
16. Trial to be taken how he can work upon consciences.
17. To be asked what he thinks of catechising, and of the right way of visiting of the sick. 
18. Inquiry after the nature of the place.
19. Upon his withdrawing, those that are present, to give their censure of his answers.
20. His certificate to be first published in the assembly, and to be despatched without paying anything.
21. That no chairman be made for this, but by the assembly.

The ninth, tenth, and twelfth aspects of the examination process are designed to further the assembly's understanding of the minister's reputation and ministry history, as well as his hopes or ambitions in wishing to move from one pastoral charge to another. Ministers do sometimes wish to leave difficult situations where it would be better for them to remain, or to seek a new charge for inadequate or even problematic reasons. Rules eleven, thirteen, and fourteen rules require the examiners to determine if a man is sufficiently learned to engage in the varied work of ministry. Thus the committee was to find out what he read, how he reasoned, what he knew about key doctrines, and whether he could work with the original languages of Scripture (Hebrew and Greek) and the usual language of scholarship (Latin).

The next three rules treat facets of practical theology. The assembly tested his preaching skills (if there was time), his ability to serve as a physician of souls ("work upon consciences"), his ability to catechise, and to visit the sick. The closest that the Westminster Assembly ever came to outlining its priorities for pastoral care, was in rules sixteen and seventeen. Together these two rules touched on three problems in living typically addressed in post-Reformation pastoral care: that of sin, ignorance, and suffering. Some demonstration of proficiency in all three of these categories was required to meet a minimum standard of care.

Only after gleaning all of this information did the assembly think it would be in a position to ask "after the nature of the place" where the man wanted to serve. The last three of this final cluster of rules pertains to the operation of the examination committee and its relationship to the assembly.

Of the fourteen direct questions of the minister or about his testimonials, most are slanted towards basic fact finding, questioning theological positions more than theological depth. These questions could be asked and answered briefly, and if there were no material concerns about the minister being questioned, could be completed in an hour or two. Trial of his knowledge on the fundamentals of religion and on his ability to handle cases of conscience, like any other parts of the examination, would take much more time.

For much of the assembly's history, the gathering concluded the process with a simple vote to accept or reject the minister. Only in the latter years did a third option, that of placing the candidate on probation, became increasingly popular. Candidates began to be "approved of" for six, nine or twelve month periods. A more detailed study of the ordinands themselves is needed to determine if the rump assembly (dominated by congregationalists instead of presbyterians) used probationary approval as a means of admitting less qualified candidates into the ministry or as a means of enforcing more stringent requirements.

Problematic cases

At times the biggest roadblock to reform proved to be parliament itself. The assembly often faced challenges with regard to ministers favoured by one or other of the houses but rejected by the assembly, and assembly members felt keenly the political or legal liabilities of rejecting ministers. After a breach of confidentiality with an apparent leak of information over the weekend, the assembly began the week of January 19, 1646 by ordering that "when any information is given in this assembly by any members of it against any minister to be examined, the name of the member of the assembly shall not be made knowne to the party complained of or any other by any member of the assembly." Draft rejection letters in the minutes also suggest a desire for cautious wording, as the number of interlineations and erasures in the rough notes of the assembly's minutes indicate.

Local disputes could often have broader implications, not least in the case of Samuel Hall. On February 10, 1647 Hall provided his examiners at the assembly with what they considered inadequate testimonials of his faith and life. The following day the assembly sent a memo to the inhabitants of Thaxted, in Essex, who must have been apprised of Hall's efforts to gain the town pulpit, and gave them a fortnight to produce any arguments for or against Hall. On March 12, 1647 the assembly stalled Hall for another week; the decision to delay his examination was then overturned and he was examined, suggesting that Hall's testimonials from known ministers were ambiguous enough for the majority of the assembly to be willing at least to allow him to proceed to examination. Nonetheless, he was not approved, and his case dragged on for months with both houses and their respective committees calling on the assembly to explain its decisions and to accept Hall.

The assembly countered by appointing ever-larger committees to respond to parliament and explain why the majority could not approve of his continuing ministry. The story is too long to explain in full here, but Hall eventually was installed in the Thaxted church, but then Parliament reversed its decision and ordered that he be removed. But by now, enough people in Thaxted were willing to have Hall as a minister that when officers from parliament came to the church to remove Hall during a worship service, they were shouted down by the men of the church and attacked by a group of women who clambered over the front pews in order to reach the pulpit and defend their pastor. Other members of the congregation, presumably those who had opposed Hall all along and were in support of his removal, expressed their shock at the behaviour of their fellow parishioners and placed a well-timed complaint with the House of Lords, carefully emphasizing the impropriety and disorder of the women's behaviour in the attack as much as the attack itself.

As historian Keith Lindley has argued in other contexts, violence in parishes was not uncommon before and during the civil war, especially where the traditional structures and practices of church and society were threatened by change. The assembly's role in examining ministers, and parliament's role in installing them, were examples of such obvious changes. Yet the assembly concluded that the possibility of a godly ministry in England was worth even the potential for further civil disobedience, and the messiness of cases like Hall's.

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.