God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reform of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653

God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reform of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653

The Westminster Assembly

The assembly of divines that authored a famous confession of faith, catechisms, and much more, met in Westminster, now a suburb of London, in the middle of a bloody civil war that tore apart, England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The English parliament, for a variety of reasons, raised an army to try to rein in the power of the king and to gain reforms in taxation, religion, and political process. The English parliament was called the Long Parliament because it met for a long time (1642-1653).

Of all the tasks assigned to the assembly of divines meeting in Westminster abbey, only one persisted from 1643 to 1653: the examination of preachers. Every other endeavour of the assembly was either abandoned or completed as the years dragged on. But from its first month to its final days, apprehensive preachers waited weekly in the antechamber next to the Jerusalem Chamber for their turn to be interviewed and assessed. They hoped to leave the abbey with a certificate of approval to enter a new pastoral charge. And they knew that it would be granted only if they approximated the kind of preacher that could play a part in the assembly's attempted reformation of the English church.

The Westminster Assembly, as it has come to be called by historians, summoned in an attempt to reform the Church of England, was obsessed with pulpit reform. The gathering not only conducted thousands of examinations of preachers, exhausting more sessions scrutinizing men than drafting documents, it also had a lot to say about preaching and the importance of the pulpit in the texts that it eventually produced. This series of six essays gives readers a glimpse of these reforms, beginning with the problems the assembly faced, then considering the assembly's own actions to address those problems, and then considering the assembly's publications intended for the church at large. It ends by considering the assembly's ideals for preaching, an attempt to understand what assembly members considered optimal for preachers and preaching in their own day, a subset of which may be useful for the church in our times too.

Supply and Demand

For one young boy, the arrival of the assembly at Westminster abbey was exciting - so much so that he asked for permission to miss breakfast in order to hear assembly members preach. Each day divines preached and prayed from six to eight in the morning at St. Margaret's Church, on the abbey grounds. It was to attend these services that Philip Henry, father of the famous biblical commentator, received a note to regularly excuse him from the dining hall of Westminster School. Matthew Henry records that his father attributed his conversion to those morning sermons, especially the ministry of Stephen Marshall (1594/5-1655), one of London's favourite preachers throughout the 1640s.

The abbey service was followed most mornings by the preaching of a probationer before a committee of the assembly or the full body. (At times a nervous probationer could run a little long, finally leading the assembly to decide that sermons may not extend beyond nine o'clock, for at that hour the assembly's plenary session formally began. The fact that the assembly would find itself examining ministers was not at all obvious on the gathering's first day. The task of examination was not mentioned in the printed summoning ordinance that gave the assembly its mandate, it was not requested in any known petition prior to the assembly, and it was not discussed in either house of parliament prior to the call of assembly members to Westminster. Furthermore, assessing ministers was bound to slow the assembly's progress in its appointed tasks. The examination of ministers and, later, ministerial candidates, can only be understood as an answer to the assembly's own first petition to parliament on July 19, 1643, asking for the removal of "blind guides and scandalous Ministers, by whose wickednesse people either lack or loath the Ordinances of the Lord, and thousands of soules perish," and by the clerical vacuum which parliament itself had created.

In late 1642 a committee of the House of Commons had been established to relocate ministers sympathetic to parliament who were displaced or plundered by royalist troops loyal to Charles I. Extending its remit, the same committee was also charged with removing scandalous or malignant ministers from their posts - those deficient in their "conversation" or simply unwilling to ally themselves with the parliamentary cause. Nonetheless, while for many months parliament ejected what they considered to be scandalous ministers, it shrank from the difficulty of developing a plan for filling the pulpits that were now empty. The summoning of the assembly provided a new opportunity, however, and on July 28, 1643 the House of Commons asked the assembly to examine all preachers who had been plundered by the king's forces and who wished to take the place of those sequestered by parliament. As a result, twenty-six assembly-men were nominated as examiners, any five of which could constitute the committee.

Examining Ministers

The assembly's role in the examination of ministers went through several phases. Although the examination of ministers was to consume a vast amount of time, the initial task was limited in its scope to ejected ministers only. Parliament would refer a minister to the assembly for examination. If this exam was sustained, the assembly would then refer the person back to parliament, and a ceremony conducted by an official of a bishop now willing to work with parliament would institute and induct the man in his new "living" (an early-modern term for an income-earning clerical position of some kind, such as a parish or chaplaincy).

This initial effort was deemed to be such a success that the assembly's remit for examination of plundered ministers was soon expanded to include an examination of all ministers changing their living within the church. This was an obvious expansion of the assembly's responsibilities: faced with a qualitatively deficient ministry nationwide, parliament (perhaps with prompting) was able to see an opportunity not only to eject the most obviously scandalous ministers, but also to insist that all ministers attempting to move from one living to another (and not only those ministers displaced by the war), be examined by the Westminster Assembly to see if they were worthy of their calling.

In time, the structure of examination, institution, and induction was standardized. The assembly's vote was essential for a minister's approval. If the assembly voted against a minister he could not serve unless the assembly reversed its decision. Nonetheless, if the assembly approved a minister, he did not automatically end up in the church of his choice: over time, the assembly determined that the congregation had to approve of his installation, and so too did Parliament.

Living the Dream

What the House and the assembly had done was astonishing. They had created a system to sift through the existing ministers of England and assess their characters and skills. Neither at the time of the Reformation was there, nor at the Great Ejection would there be, a national process so comprehensive in its scope. This moment, more than any before it, realized a crucial aspect of the puritan dream - a process, at least, to forcible encourage godly assiduous preachers and preaching.

Nonetheless, the ministry of England was not only qualitatively wanting; it was also quantitatively wanting, and although a few ministers could be sourced from Reformed churches overseas, the only real solution to the demand for more preachers in England (and for the army and navy) would have to come from a fresh supply at home. The problem was that neither parliament nor the assembly had a way available to them to allow for the introduction of new ministers into the church. Institution and induction into a living was an action sanctioned by the civil authority; this parliament could direct. However ordination was an action of the church, and the bishops who had once ordained new ministers were now removed from, or had fled from, their posts. Ordination by bishops would require the return to old ecclesiastical structures (which the majority in the assembly and in parliament would not entertain) ordination by any other method demanded the creation and coordination of something new, which would strain the limited relational capital which members of parliament could afford in the midst of a civil war. Once again, the matter was referred to the assembly for its consideration, and by the autumn of 1643 the assembly was forced to grasp the thorny question of a theory, or at least a method, for ordination.

The answer was a temporary expedient for ordination, with the rite being solemnized by a committee of ministers, suggested by the assembly and appointed by parliament. Later the assembly would eventually devolve the act of ordination to presbyteries, thus creating a permanent mechanism for introducing new ministers into the church. But parliament undermined the importance of the assembly's text for ordination by insisting that the assembly continue examining candidates and ministers. This was no mere pebble in a presbyterian shoe. The whole assembly was given no relief from the duty of examination, not even after presbyteries were conducting full, multi-day examinations of candidates themselves. This redundancy was emblematic of the tensions between parliament and the assembly. The politicians wished to retain this newfound level of control over the ministry of the church through the agency of the assembly; the pastors wished to establish the self-government of the church without the interference of the civil government. The unhappy solution, at least in the experience of many of those being examined, was to endure two sets of examinations - not something that most candidates for the ministry would face with much enthusiasm then or now.

Godly Connections

When parliament first assigned the assembly the task of examining preachers, a committee was erected for the examination of ministers (and later, ordinands also) and began to function almost immediately, with John Ley (1584-1662), formerly a prebend and sub-deacon of Chester Cathedral, evolving into the role of chief examiner. At Dr. Thomas Temple's (1602-1661) request, the membership of the committee was reconstituted on June 4, 1644. Additional examiners were proposed and liberty was granted to any member of the assembly to join and vote in the committee at any time. Ley remained the <em>de facto</em> chair of the committee - indeed it came to be called "Mr. Ley's committee," and it remained under his guidance until late 1647.

The records of the assembly's examination committee, like the records of almost all other assembly committees, appear to be lost. Nonetheless, through occasional reports of problems with ministers, and through the gradual process of regularizing examinations with additional rules and structures, a picture of the assembly's examination procedures emerges. The first significant ruling about examinations came at the end of September 1643 when the assembly decided that its committee for ministerial examinations was to obtain the approval of the full assembly prior to recommending anyone for ministry, thus requiring the committee to make some kind of report to the full assembly about a person's "sufficiency" before a certificate of approval could be issued in the name of the assembly. Already in the summer of 1643 the examination process relied heavily on letters of reference or testimonials (which sometimes, confusingly, were also called "certificates"). If these testimonials or references were deemed satisfactory and if the minister or his referees were known to the assembly-men, the minister would preach a sermon before the assembly or a committee of the assembly prior to the commencement of a plenary session. In most cases letters of testimonial were considered sufficient to begin the process of examination, but if a testimonial was not deemed satisfactory, the minister was not admitted to examination and was instead asked to produce better letters of recommendation.

The system of references and referees served the assembly well, and recognized an important principle: it is not sufficient for a minister to convince himself, or even a congregation, that he is equipped for ministry. He must also persuade leaders in the church who have pastoral experience themselves and who have studied and the issues and addressed the kinds of challenges that pastors and preachers must face if they are to be faithful to their calling. Naturally more than a mere reference was needed to satisfy the assembly; the actual process of examination conducted by the assembly, and then the pattern of examination recommended by the assembly to others, are the subjects of later articles in this series.

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.