WILLIAM MAXWELL HETHERINGTON,
D. D., LL. D.
On the 14th of February the first committee reported, in confirmation of the proposition that many congregations may be under one presbytery, the following instances from Scripture: –
1. The Church of Jerusalem;
2. The Church of Corinth;
3. Of Ephesus;
4. Of Antioch.
Assuming that the existence of many congregations, and but one presbytery at Jerusalem, had been proved in a former debate, the other instances were proved by the following arguments: Corinth – from the time of Paul’s abode there; from the different places of meeting, as Cenchrea, the house of Justus, and of Chloe, and the use of the word "churches," in the plural; and from the multitude of pastors, – 1 Corinthians 1: 12, 4: 15; and that these congregations were under one presbytery, – 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2. Ephesus – from Paul’s continuance there; the special effect, and the reason of his stay given; from the multitude of pastors, termed "elders" and "overseers," or bishops; and under one presbytery, which exercised jurisdiction, – Revelation 2: 1,2. Antioch – from a multitude of believers, – Acts 11: 21-26; and from numbers of pastors and teachers, – Acts 13: 1; 15: 35. The report concluded with this argument: – "Where there were more believers than could meet in one place, and more pastors than could be for one congregation, then there were more congregations than one; but it was so in these Churches; and it was lawful for these to be under one presbyterial government: therefore it is so now." 33 These propositions were, as usual, laid aside till the objections already stated by the Independents should have been fully debated.
The discussion respecting church censure and excommunication was again resumed, with reference to 1 Corinthians 5; and Mr. Goodwin argued that "discipline did not constitute a church, nor is any note of a church." Selden doubted whether the passage referred to had any thing to do with excommunication. This was answered very strongly by Mr. Vines and others; and the Independents were requested to state clearly their opinion on the subject. To this Goodwin answered, "That the people cannot excommunicate; and that the people, if need be, yet must have their vote." The inference was immediately drawn, that if the elders were outvoted the excommunication would be prevented, and thus the theory of the Independents, of simple admonition or non-communion, would alone be practicable. At last the Assembly decided, that the argument of the Independents was not proved, and did not conclude against the proposition.
The attention of the Assembly was next directed to Matthew 18: 15-17, by Mr. Bridge, who endeavored, in a very elaborate argument, to prove that the church there mentioned was not a civil court, not a Jewish sanhedrim, not a presbytery or synod, not a national church, but a particular congregation only, and yet that it had the power of the highest censure, without appeal; therefore every particular congregation, consisting of elders and brethren, should have entire and full power and jurisdiction within itself. Mr. Marshall met the argument, point by point, in an answer equally full and elaborate; assuming, as the basis of his reply, that the term "church" neither meant universal, national, nor provincial only, nor a single congregation only; but either, or all in turn, as the occasion might require. Mr. Vines, Mr. Gataker, Mr. Goodwin, Mr. Calamy, and others, took part in the debate, which was conducted with great skill and ability.
When the subject was resumed, another direction was given to the discussion by Selden, who produced a long and learned argument to prove that the passage of Scripture in question contained no authority for ecclesiastical jurisdiction. His object was, to guard against any conclusion of the Assembly, which might contradict the Erastian theory, and therefore he labored to represent the whole as relating to the ordinary practice of the Jews in their common courts; by whom, as he asserted, one sentence was excommunication, pronounced by the civil court. Herle and Marshall both attempted answers, but, says Lightfoot, "so as I confess gave me no satisfaction." Gillespie then came to the rescue, and, in a speech of astonishing power and acuteness, completely confuted Selden, even on his own chosen ground, and where his strength was greatest. He proved that the passage could not mean a civil court, because, –
1. The nature of the offense and cause treated of is spiritual;
2. The end is spiritual, for it is not restitution or satisfaction, but to gain the soul;
3. The persons are spiritual, for Christ speaks to his apostles;
4. The manner of proceeding is spiritual – all is done in the name of Christ;
5. The censure is spiritual, for it is binding the soul;
6. Christ would not have sent his disciples for private spiritual injuries to civil courts;
7. The Church of the Jews had spiritual censures, and the expression, "Let him be as a heathen," imported prohibition from sacred things, for the heathen might not come into the temple; and the ceremonially unclean might not enter, much more the morally unclean. 34
This appears to have been the speech referred to by Wodrow, and of which there still exist many traditionary anecdotes, illustrative of the very extraordinary effect produced upon all that heard it. Selden himself is reported to have said, at its conclusion, "That young man, by this single speech, has swept away the labors of ten years of my life;" 35 and it is remarkable that Selden made no attempt to reply to Gillespie, though he answered some of the arguments used by others who spoke after him.
About the same time Mr. Nye craftily endeavored to excite the jealousy of the Parliament against presbyterial church government, but overreached himself. He had attempted to frame an argument against the power of presbyteries, on the assumption "That there is no power over another power, where there is no distinction in nature nor difference in operation;" but he was called to order, as not speaking to the question. On the following day, finding the Assembly full of the nobility and members of Parliament, he resumed the argument, persisting in his speech against the evident feeling of the House; and after he had attempted to show that the admission of a power over a power, in Church courts, would lead to an ecclesiastical government commensurate with that of the civil, he drew the inference, that it would be pernicious for a great commonwealth were so great a body to be permitted to grow up within it; in short, he attempted to alarm the Parliament, by the dread of that phantom of which so much has been heard, an imperium in imperio, or one government within another, as a formidable and monstrous anomaly, dangerous to the peace of states and kingdoms. This insidious attempt caused a great sensation; some proposed that he should be at once expelled, others declared that his language was seditious; and it was voted that he had spoken against order – which was the highest censure that the Assembly inflicted. Mr. Marshall appealed to all the parliamentary members present, whether the presbyterial government be more terrible to them than ten thousand or twenty thousand congregations, none in reference or dependence to another. Warriston showed that the ecclesiastical and civil governments strengthened each other; and that one power over another in the Church no more tended to produce confusion or injury than in civil matters, where one court is subordinate to another, and yet but one State. And Mr. Whitelocke, M. P., followed a similar course of illustration, and ended his remark by saying, "What a confusion it will prove to have congregations independent!" This debate, ending so very much the reverse of what Nye expected, caused the Independents to abate their opposition considerably; and it was voted that their arguments had not concluded against the proposition before the Assembly. 36
The next subject was respecting the instance of the Church at Jerusalem as proving that one presbytery was over many congregations. Although considerable time was spent in discussing this topic, it did not draw forth any great exhibition of learning or power, such as had been previously displayed. Almost the only idea of importance brought out in this discussion was that suggested by Gillespie, namely, that there could be no other principle whereby several congregations could be one church, but only government. Their dwelling in one town made them a civil body, but not an ecclesiastical; their ecclesiastical union could not be but in a presbytery, for they could not meet together in one place: therefore it was only as forming a presbytery, and in respect to government, which is the function of a presbytery, that they could be one ecclesiastical body. Once more the Independents were staggered, and could not answer. Both Goodwin and Nye admitted that at least the keys of doctrine are in the hands of a synod or assembly; and that as many men united have more moral power than one man, so many churches joining together must have more ecclesiastical power than one church. And in order to avail themselves of this renewed approximation, the Assembly, on the motion of Mr. Henderson, proposed a committee for the purpose of attempting to obtain an accommodation with the Independents; and Messrs Seaman, Vines, Palmer, Marshall, Goodwin, Nye, Burroughs, and Bridge, together with the four Scottish divines, were named for the committee. On the 14th of March this committee reported that the Independents had agreed to the following propositions: –
1. That there be a presbytery, or meeting of the elders of many neighboring congregations, to consult upon such things as concern those congregations in matters ecclesiastical; and such presbyteries are the ordinances of Christ, having his power and authority.
2. Such presbyteries have power, in cases that are to come before them, to declare and determine doctrinally what is agreeable to God’s Word; and this judgment of theirs is to be received with reverence and obligation, as Christ’s ordinance.
3. They have power to require the elders of those congregations to give an account of any thing scandalous in doctrine or practice." 37
The Assembly agreed to the continuance of the committee, and granted them liberty to take into consideration any thing that might tend to accommodation, and to report when convenient. Thus, again, it appears that the Assembly was the very reverse of intolerant and overbearing.
Another report was brought forward from this committee about a week afterwards, containing two additional propositions, forming five in all, as follow: –
4. The churches and elderships being offended, let them examine, admonish, and, in case of obstinacy, declare them either disturbers of the peace, or subverters of the faith, or otherwise, as the nature and degree of the offense shall require.
5. In case that the particular church or eldership shall refuse to reform that scandalous doctrine or practice, then that meeting of elders, which is assembled from several churches and congregations, shall acquaint their several congregations respectively, and withdraw from them, and deny Church communion and fellowship with them." 38
The account given by Baillie, though less minute, and not using the very language of the committee, expresses his view of the result even more strongly: "We have agreed on five or six propositions, hoping, by God’s grace, to agree in more. They yield, that a presbytery, even as we take it, is an ordinance of God, which hath power and authority from Christ to call the ministers and elders, or any in their bounds, before them, to account for any offense in life or doctrine, to try and examine the cause, – to admonish and rebuke, and if they be obstinate, to declare them as heathens and publicans, and give them over to the punishment of the magistrates; also doctrinally, to declare the mind of God in all questions of religion, with such authority as obliges to receive their just sentences; and that they will be members of such fixed presbyteries, keep the meetings, preach as it comes to their turn, and join in the discipline after doctrine."39 Surely but very little more was necessary to have produced a complete agreement between the Presbyterians and the Independents, since the latter party had thus assented to all that was essential to Presbyterian Church government: but unhappily they seemed to dread, that by uniting with the Presbyterians, they should lose their influence among the Sectaries, and in the army; and Nye in particular was too deeply engaged in the political intrigues of Vane and Cromwell to be willing to relinquish that influence which rendered him a person of importance. 40
On the 13th of March the discussion terminated in the affirmation of the propositions respecting Church government, so far as regarded the general statement, and the proofs from the instances of Jerusalem and Corinth, after having occupied the attention of the Assembly for thirty days passed in earnest and strenuous debate, during which all the arguments which profound learning and acute ingenuity could devise were brought forward and discussed with equal minuteness and ability. The subject was then referred to the committee, that all the points which had been decided might be systematically arranged, partly to be ready to be reported to the Parliament, and partly for the satisfaction of the Assembly itself, and for the sake of order. This report was produced on the 10th of April, the Assembly having been occupied in the interim with the subject of ordination, as already related. The propositions reported were the three following:
1. The Scripture doth hold out a presbytery in a church;
2. A presbytery consisteth of ministers of the Word, and such other public officers as are agreeable to and warranted by the Word of God, to be Church governors, to join with the ministers in the government of the Church;
3. The Scripture holds forth that many congregations may be under one presbyterial government. Proved by the instance of the Church at Jerusalem.
The instance of the Church at Corinth was not given, as it had been adduced chiefly for the purpose of proving the power of Church censures. Though the Independents had assented to the essence of these propositions in the committee for accommodation, yet they vehemently opposed the sending of them to the Parliament for ratification; and the Assembly, on the motion of Mr. Marshall, again consented to lay them aside for a time. 41
The Assembly resumed the subject on the l8th of April, to prove Presbyterial government from the instance of the Church of Ephesus; and after some debate, this instance was sustained as a proof of the main proposition. Another topic followed, which cost some discussion, namely, that so many visible saints as dwelt in one city were but one Church in regard of Church government. On this point, Rutherford was anxious to guard against any infringement of the due power in censure and government in particular congregations; and in this he was supported by Henderson. This guard was necessary, in consequence of extreme views held by some English Presbyterian divines, who, in order, apparently, to keep as far as possible remote from the Independent system, opposed any power of censure or government in congregations, and denied the right or propriety of congregational elderships.42 This is mentioned chiefly for the purpose of corroborating an idea which has been repeatedly suggested, – that instead of the Scottish commissioners being the direct instigators of the Westminster Assembly to aim at a rigid and unaccommodating form of Church government essentially intolerant and tyrannical, the very reverse is the truth; for while they refused all compromise of fundamental principles, they were exceedingly desirous to remove everything in minor matters to which their brethren could not readily assent, or from which they dreaded an interference with their own conscientious scruples.
Some difficulty was encountered in stating how Christians should be most conveniently and regularly formed into distinct congregations, so as best to obtain the benefit of pastoral instruction and superintendence. This the Assembly thought should be by the bounds of their dwellings, – that is, by the parochial system; but the Independents opposed it, because it was contrary to their mode of "gathering churches," as it was termed. The proposition was however affirmed.
The subject of ruling elders was again resumed, on the 3d of May, after having been laid aside for a considerable time. At first it was proposed that there should be at least one ruling elder in every congregation; but this was strenuously opposed by the Scottish commissioners, as in reality not forming a congregational eldership. It was at length decided, that in every congregation there should be, besides the minister, others to assist him in ruling, as elders; and some to take care for the poor, as deacons; the number of each to be proportioned to the congregation.
Another topic then called forth a strenuous debate of five days’ duration, namely, "That no single congregation, which may conveniently join together in an association, may assume unto itself all and sole power of ordination." Against this proposition the Independents mustered all their adherents, and put forth their whole strength, because it condemned the central principle of their system. When it came to the vote, "it was affirmed by twenty-seven, and denied by nineteen; and this business," adds Lightfoot, "had been managed with the most heat and confusion of any thing that had happened among us."43 When the reasons to prove the general proposition were brought forward, another keen struggle took place, the first reason being carried by a majority of four votes, the second by a majority of five. 44
The committee appointed to frame a summary of Church government, produced, instead of a report, a proposition to be debated, to the following effect: – "Concerning the ruling officers of particular congregations, they have power, –
1. Authoritatively to call before them scandalous or suspected persons;
2. To admonish or rebuke authoritatively;
3. To keep from the sacrament authoritatively;
4. To excommunicate.
The first topic was easily admitted, with a slight change on its terms; as was also the second; but the third led to a protracted and very learned debate, having been recast into this form: "Authoritative suspension from the Lord’s table of a person not yet cast out of the church, is agreeable to the Scripture." 45 This proposition was opposed by Coleman, Herle, Case, and particularly by Lightfoot, who attempted to prove his view by the instance of Judas; and this led to a discussion on that point, in which scarcely any agreed with Lightfoot’s opinion. The chief advocates of suspending scandalous persons were Young, Calamy, Gillespie, Rutherford, Reynolds, Burgess, and Dr. Hoyle. The Independents did not enter warmly into the discussion; and Goodwin, after endeavoring to represent it as differing little from admonition, concluded by saying, that his judgment fell in with the proposition, only he liked not the authoritative doing of it. It was at length decided in the affirmative, none voting against it but Lightfoot. But though the proposition had thus obtained the sanction of the Assembly, it was afterwards opposed by the Parliament; as, indeed, might have been expected, from the lax notions entertained generally by men of the world on all such subjects.
The subject of excommunication was not again resumed till the 16th of October, when two passages of Scripture were brought forward to prove it, namely, 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18: 17,18. Both were admitted, and the proposition was further supported by this argument: "They that have authority to judge of and admit to the sacrament such as are to receive it, have authority to keep back such as shall be found unworthy." Against this Lightfoot alone voted in the negative; and that chiefly because he was not convinced that there is suspension or excommunication, as a power belonging to the Church, – an opinion which sprung from his Erastianism. Thus terminated the debates on that much contested point, on the 25th of October, so far as the Assembly was concerned: the opinions of the Parliament will fall under our observation when we come to the Erastian controversy.
Affairs had now attained so much maturity that a crisis had become inevitable; for every point having been very fully debated between the Presbyterians and the Independents, they must either unite, or adopt some new course which should render union impossible. The Presbyterians had done every thing in their power to meet the scruples of the Dissenting Brethren, both by allowing them to bring forward every objection which they could devise, and to debate till all were thoroughly exhausted, and also by appointing a committee of their own number to confer with them, in the hope of avoiding a final disruption. But when the Dissenting Brethren could not persuade the Assembly to adopt their views in preference to its own, they renewed their intrigues with the Independents in the army, by whose influence they knew they would be supported. The state of political affairs was favorable to their schemes. Soon after the battle of Marston, in which the king’s army sustained such a severe defeat, proposals were made for a treaty of peace, of which the Presbyterians in the Parliament were cordially desirous, if it could be obtained on terms sufficient to secure the liberties of the kingdom. But this was by no means what the Independents in both Parliament and army desired, consequently the scene of contest was removed from the tented field to the legislative assemblies; and this brought Oliver Cromwell to the House of Commons. This deep-minded and far-foreseeing man perceived clearly that were a peace concluded, and Church government established, his ambitious prospects must be completely destroyed; and with his usual sagacity, anticipating the unyielding obstinacy of the king, which would render any satisfactory pacific arrangement impossible, he set himself chiefly to prevent the settlement of the Church by means of a Presbyterian establishment. "This day" (13th September), says Baillie, "Cromwell has obtained an order of the House of Commons to refer to the committee of both kingdoms the accommodation or toleration of the Independents, – a high and unexpected order." In another passage, referring to the same event, Baillie adds, that "this was done without the least advertisement to any of us or of the Assembly." "This has much affected us. These men have retarded the Assembly these long twelve months. This is the fruit of their disservice, to obtain really an act of Parliament for their toleration, before we have got any thing for Presbytery either in Assembly or Parliament."46
The order from the House of Commons was produced in the Assembly on the 16th of September, in the following terms: – "That the committee of Lords and Commons appointed to treat with the commissioners of Scotland, and the committee of the Assembly, do take into consideration the differences of the opinions of the members of the Assembly in point of Church government, and to endeavor an union, if it be possible. And in case that cannot be done, to endeavor the finding out some way how far tender consciences, who cannot in all things submit to the same rule which shall be established, may be borne with according to the Word, and as may stand with the public peace; that so the proceedings of the Assembly may not be so much retarded." 47 In compliance with this order, the committee met on the 20th of September, and appointed a sub-committee, consisting of Dr. Temple, Messrs Marshall, Herle, Vines, Goodwin, and Nye, to consider of the differences of opinion in the Assembly, in point of Church government, and to report to the Grand Committee. These divines accordingly formed what was called the sub-committee of agreements; and prepared several propositions concerning the government of particular congregations, ordination, etc., which they laid before the Grand Committee on the 11th of October. Having some additional propositions to frame respecting the jurisdiction of Presbyteries and Synods, they were adjourned, and appointed to meet again on the 15th of October, and then to produce a completed report. When they met on the day appointed, their additional propositions were read; but when it was proposed to take them into consideration, it was objected, that it was not consistent with strict propriety to discuss objections against a proposed rule of Church government till that rule itself should have been completed by the Assembly and the Houses of Parliament. The proceedings of this Committee of Accommodation were therefore suspended by the House of Commons till their further pleasure, no real progress towards an agreement having been made.
Without relating minutely the proceedings of this committee, it may be enough to state, that in what was termed the preface of their report, they expressed their confidence that they would jointly agree in one Confession of Faith, and in one Directory of Public Worship, their only difference being in points of Church government. They framed nine propositions respecting the power of individual congregations, in six of which they were all agreed, with a slight and unimportant explanation. The points of the other three in which the Independents could not quite agree with the Presbyterians, respected the power of congregations to excommunicate members, or ordain elders by the sole authority of the people, seeking merely the advice of neighboring ministers, but not subject to the control of a presbytery; and the parochial system, which the Independents opposed, as contrary to their theory of gathering churches out of other churches. To this system of the Independents the Presbyterians would not consent, as giving countenance to schism, and, perpetuating strife and jealousy among both ministers and people. With regard to the jurisdiction of Presbyteries and Synods, the Independents could consent to nothing more than the advice of neighboring ministers, to be respected, but not authoritative further than admonition; and in case of the offending congregation not submitting, withdrawing from it, and denying Church communion and fellowship, but without any actual power within the range of any particular congregation over any offending member, though the congregation itself might be admonished for not putting forth its own power to reform its own members. It is plain that the essential difference between the two parties remained undiminished; the Independents continued to maintain the sole power of congregations to exercise Church government, and to demand the privilege of gathering churches, or congregations, out of the congregations of the Presbyterians, with whom, nevertheless, they could continue to hold occasional communion. These points the Presbyterians regarded as utterly subversive of their whole system; and though they would have tolerated in practice, they could not consent to give it an avowed and legal sanction, regarding it as nationally impolitic, in a religious point of view sinful, and with regard to the Covenant, a violation of their oath, being virtually to sanction and legalize schism. Besides, they perceived clearly that this avowed and legal sanction to the Independent system would of necessity involve an equal permission to the wildest and most immoral and blasphemous Sectarians to frame separate congregations, and collect adherents, by every artifice, and to the ruin of both Church and kingdom.
Although no accommodation resulted from the deliberations of this committee, there is every reason to think that Cromwell and Nye obtained the end they had in view when it was proposed. The progress of both Parliament and Assembly towards the ratification of the propositions respecting Church government, was suspended, and time was obtained for adopting another course. Accordingly, on the 7th of November, the Independents began to talk of giving in to the Assembly their reasons of dissent from the Assembly’s propositions respecting Church government. On the 14th of November these reasons were produced, and on the following day were read, and a committee of twenty appointed to take them into consideration. The most prominent persons of that committee were, Drs. Temple and Hoyle, Messrs Marshall, Tuckney, Calamy, Palmer, Vines, Seaman, and Lightfoot; and their answers to the reasons of dissent were read in the Assembly on the 17th day of December, and continued on the following days till they had been fully heard, previous to their being transmitted to Parliament.
Thus terminated the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly, so far as regarded the proceedings of the year 1644. But as these proceedings had chiefly involved the controversy between the Presbyterians and the Independents; and as the points in which they differed had been all thoroughly debated in the Assembly in the course of the year 1644, and the contest had now assumed a literary character, in consequence of the production of written reasons of dissent, and written answers to those reasons, it seems expedient to complete our brief outline of this important controversy, though touching a little upon the events of subsequent years, before directing our attention to the Erastian controversy.
The Dissenting Brethren entered their dissent with reasons in writing, to be presented to the Honorable Houses by the Assembly, to the three following propositions, as the only points in which there existed direct and essential differences between them and the Presbyterians, namely, –
1. To the third proposition concerning presbyterial government;
2. To the propositions concerning subordination of assemblies;
3. To the proposition concerning the power of ordination, whether in a particular congregation, though it may associate with others.
The third proposition concerning Presbyterial Church government was as follows: – "The Scripture doth hold forth that many congregations may be under one presbyterial government. This is proved by instances:
1. Of the Church of Jerusalem, which consisted of more congregations than one, and all those congregations were under one presbyterial government;
2. Of the Church of Ephesus, in which there were more congregations than one, and where there were many elders over those congregations as one flock, though those many congregations were one Church, and under one presbyterial government.
As this proposition, together with its subordinate details, and the Scripture texts on which the whole is founded, are stated fully in the Confession of Faith, and Directory, it cannot be necessary to occupy space by their insertion.
The Dissenting Brethren gave in reasons against the proposition itself, and also against the instances by which it was proved. Their argument against the proposition is in the following terms: – "If many congregations having all elders already affixed respectively unto them, may be under a presbyterial government, then all those elders must sustain a special relation of elders to all the people of those congregations as one Church, and to every one as a member thereof; but for a company of such elders already affixed to sustain such a relation, carries with it so great and manifold incongruities and inconsistencies with what the Scriptures speak of elders in their relation to a church committed to them, and likewise with the principles of the Reformed Churches themselves, as cannot be admitted: and therefore such a government may not be." The proposition thus stated is explained, defended, and enforced, in a treatise of forty pages, by the Dissenting Brethren, whose names, now increased to seven, are subscribed to it, namely, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Jeremiah Burroughs, Sidrach Simpson, William Bridge, William Greenhill, William Carter. It does not appear necessary to give any summary of the arguments brought forward by these brethren against the Assembly, or in illustration of their own negative proposition; because, from the proposition itself, every reader will see that their major proposition rests on an assumption which itself required to be both explained and proved; and that their minor proposition was merely a congeries of supposed incongruities and inconsistencies, which they asserted would follow, but which could not be proved to be necessary consequences, and had not followed in churches already under Presbyterian government.
The answer of the Assembly extended to eighty pages, which, in one point of view, was much more than enough; but aware that their task was not only to meet the argument of the Dissenting Brethren, but also to produce a defense of Presbyterian Church government, such as might be laid before the public, they entered fully into the subject, both meeting objections, and restating their own direct arguments. In this manner they produced an exceeding able treatise, exhibiting clearly and amply the grounds of Scripture and reason on which the Presbyterian Church government, in their opinion, rested; and certainly the Dissenting Brethren themselves, must have felt that they were more than answered, even allowing for their natural predilection for their own system. It is impossible to condense this able defense of Presbyterian Church government, so as to present it within the limits of the present work. This only can we state, that the Assembly’s answer begins by proving the fallacy, and the pernicious consequences of that assumption on which the main argument of their opponents was based. They, then showed that the argument of Independents was really directed against a proposition which the Assembly never held, and therefore that it was beside the question altogether. And then, returning to the subject as stated by the Dissenting Brethren, and, for the sake of argument, allowing it to be regarded as fairly put, they proceeded to meet and refute it point by point, in a very masterly manner, uniting extensive learning, acuteness of distinction, logical precision of thought, clear and energetic language, and a profound knowledge of Scripture, and veneration of its sacred truths, as the sole rule of guide in all matters of a religious nature.
The second subject against which the Independents entered their dissent with reasons was, The propositions concerning the subordination of assemblies. These propositions were three in number, but, as their dissent was directed chiefly against the third, the statement of it may be enough: "It is lawful and agreeable to the Word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies; that so appeals be made from the inferior to the superior respectively. Proved from Matthew 18, which, holding forth the subordination of an offending brother to a particular church, it doth also, by a parity of reason, hold forth the subordination of a congregation to superior assemblies." The Dissenting Brethren introduce their argument in the following manner: – "Although we judge synods to be of great use, for the finding out and declaring of truth in difficult cases, and encouragement to walk in the truth; for the healing offenses, and to give advice unto the magistrate in matters of religion; and although we give great honor and conscientious respect unto their determinations; yet seeing the proposition holds forth, not only an occasional, but a standing use of them, and that in subordination of one unto another, as juridical, ecclesiastical courts, and this in all cases, we humbly present these reasons against it: –
1. All such subordinations of courts, having greater and lesser degrees of power, to which, in their order, causes are to be brought, must have the greatest and most express warrant and designment for them in the Word. Whence it is argued thus: Those courts that must have the most express warrant and designment for them in the Word, and have not, their power is to be suspected, and not erected in the Church of God; but these ought to have so, and have not: therefore their power is to be suspected, and not erected in the Church of God.
2. If there be such a subordination of synods in the Church of Christ, then there is no independency but in an ecumenical council.
3. That Church power which cannot show a constant divine rule for its variation, and subordination, and ultimate independency, is not of God, and so may not be; but this variation of Church power into these subordinations, cannot show any such steady and constant rule for these things: therefore it may not be.
4. The government which necessarily produceth representations of spiritual power out of other representations, with a derived power therefrom, there is no warrant for; but these subordinations of synods, provincial, national, ecumenical, for the government of the Church do so: therefore for them there is no warrant.
To these they added some arguments against the instances from Acts 15, and Matthew 18, which had been adduced by the Assembly.
In the reasoning of the Dissenting Brethren, it is somewhat curious to observe that they made use of both the Erastian and the Episcopalian arguments, as these seemed to serve their purpose; as, for instance, the Erastian, "Why may not all other churches be governed as well as that of Geneva, without appeals, if the magistrate oversees them, and keeps each to their duties?" 48 The Episcopalian argument is not so succinctly stated; but it is an attempt to turn against the Presbyterians the argument used by them against the Episcopalians, of the want of an express institution of the subordination of office-bearers in the Church. And, in the course of their argument and illustrations, they made so many concessions, that it is rather difficult to conceive on what their final opposition rested. As, for instance, they admitted "that synods are an ordinance of God upon all occasions of difficulty; that all the churches of a province may call a single congregation to account; that they may examine and admonish, and, in case of obstinacy, may declare them to be subverters of the faith; that they have authority to determine in controversies of faith; that they may deny Church communion to an offending and obstinate congregation, and that this sentence of non-communion may be enforced by the authority of the civil magistrate; and that they may call before them any person within their bounds, concerned in the ecclesiastical business before them, and may hear and determine such causes as orderly come before them."49 Having made so many and such important concessions, the Independents might, with very little difficulty, have assented fully to the Assembly’s propositions; and probably would have done so, but for the influence of intriguing politicians, who dreaded nothing so much as an early and harmonious adjustment of all differences in the Assembly.
The answer of the Assembly began by laying open the essential point of difference, which consisted, not in a denial of synods, but of the standing use of them, and their subordination to one another, not the subordination of congregations to them. They then showed that the main argument of the Independents was not directed against the proposition of the Assembly, but against a peculiar construction of it by themselves, and that, too, a construction disclaimed by the Assembly. Then, as in their previous answer, they proceed to consider the reasoning of their opponents, sometimes proving that these are self-destructive, and confute their own theory, sometimes pointing out their fallacious character, and sometimes meeting them by a distinct and irresistible refutation of a strictly logical kind. In one instance, the mode of the Dissenting Brethren’s argument is very strongly urged against themselves; and since they demand "the greatest and most express warrant for the subordination of synods," they are asked to prove their own system, viz., the gathering of churches out of churches, the ordination and deposition of ministers by the people alone, the passing by one single congregation of the sentence of non-communion against all the churches in a province or a kingdom, which would surely require a warrant as great and express, or should teach them somewhat to abate in their demand. 50 In short, it is perfectly clear, in our apprehension, that both in point of conformity to the language and arrangements of Scripture, and in point of distinctness and strength of logical reasoning, the answer of the Assembly is abundantly conclusive.
The third subject against which the Independents entered reasons of dissent in writing was, the proposition concerning the power of ordination. That proposition was in the following terms: – "It is very requisite, that no single congregation that can conveniently associate, do assume to itself all and sole power in ordination." Against this they offered these reasons: "Where there is a sufficient presbytery, all and sole power in ordination may be assumed, though association may be had; but there may be a sufficient presbytery in a particular congregation: therefore a particular congregation may assume all and sole power in ordination. That which two apostles, being joined together, might do in a particular congregation, that ordinary elders may do in a particular congregation; but Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in particular congregations, though they might associate: therefore ordinary elders may ordain in particular congregations."51 The expansion of this argument served only to dilute it the more, and to make its fallacy apparent.
In their answer, the Assembly Divines seem almost to have been ashamed to analyze and expose the weak sophistry of the Dissenting Brethren’s argument. "We expected," say they, "from our brethren, in a search for truth, not a contest for victory, arguments to prove, that every single congregation have the whole power of ordination within themselves, and that none but themselves may ordain for them; but this they are pleased to decline." They then prove that the argument is illogical and vicious, containing more in the conclusion than in the premises, and yet not concluding against the proposition in debate; and, entering into a more minute examination of it, they not merely refute it, but by availing themselves of the concessions made by the Independents in the course of their own illustrations, they completely overthrow the whole Congregational theory. For the Independents had admitted that association of congregations neither adds to nor diminishes the power of a presbytery, but is by way of accumulation, not privation; and this argument is itself an answer to all their own accusations against the Presbyterian system of Church government, on the ground of its depriving congregations of their due power, since the association of congregations, like that of elders, is by way of accumulation, not privation. It will be observed also, that there is in the argument of the Independents, a deceptive use of the word presbytery, which they employed to mean the elders of a particular congregation, whereas the proper sense of the term implies the collected ministers and elders of several contiguous congregations. The answer of such arguments was an easy task, and was very successfully accomplished.
These Reasons of Dissent, and the Answers by the Assembly, occupied the attention of that venerable body during the conclusion of the year 1644, and the early part of the year 1645; and when fully completed, both the reasons and the answers were submitted to the consideration of the Parliament. After remaining in possession of the Parliament for a considerable time, and when the discussions of the Assembly had terminated, an order was issued by the House of Lords, on the 24th of January 1648 (or 1647, according to their style), that these reasons and answers should be printed from the papers in the hands of Adoniram Byfield, one of the Assembly’s scribes, after having been inspected by Messrs Goodwin and Whittaker, to secure their genuineness and authenticity; and they were published in the same year, under the title of "The Reasons presented by the Dissenting Brethren against certain Propositions concerning Presbyterial Government; together with the Answers of the Assembly of Divines to those Reasons of Dissent." In the year 1652, the same publication received a new title-page, and was called "The Grand Debate concerning Presbytery and Independency, by the Assembly of Divines convened at Westminster by authority of Parliament." This a careful examination of several copies of both dates and titles enables me to state with perfect certainty, not only the pages, but the verbal and literal errors being everywhere identical; and this is here mentioned in order to put it in the power of any person who may possess the volume to verify the preceding account, whether as here given, or as referred to by other authors under the title of "The Grand Debate."
About the time when these written discussions began to be interchanged, there was one remaining topic unsettled, on which some difference of opinion was entertained. The Assembly had unanimously agreed, that "excommunication is an ordinance of Christ;" but some difference of opinion existed respecting the body to which properly the power of excommunication belonged. A small committee was appointed for the purpose of attempting an accommodation between the Presbyterians and the Independents on this point; and on the 10th of January 1645, this committee gave in a report to which all assented, and it received the unanimous and glad sanction of the Assembly. Four days afterwards, the Independents requested that the whole directory of excommunication might be referred to a similar committee of accommodation; and this, too, the Assembly granted, in the hope of at last obtaining an amicable and harmonious arrangement. Yet, when the report of that committee had been produced, assented to by the Assembly, and voted to be transmitted to the Houses of Parliament, the Independents entered their dissent from it, as an accommodation "in any other sense than that each might interpret and use it according to their own peculiar views." 52 Against this procedure the Assembly complained, regarding it as a deceptive evasion, much more fitted to perpetuate disagreement than to promote accommodation, and lead to union.
The Assembly further complained, that the Dissenting Brethren never gave any definite statement of what they really wished, but merely opposed almost every proposition respecting Church government, and brought forward objections. At length one of the Independents, on the 11th of February 1645, said that they were willing to be formed into a committee to frame and report their judgment respecting the best model of Church government. This the Assembly gladly hailed, declaring that there was nothing which they more earnestly desired than to know the full mind and wish of the Dissenting Brethren. Immediately the Independents recoiled from their proposal, and declined being made a committee for that purpose. On the 21st of March they were urged to enter upon the task, and one of them read a paper containing seven propositions, but refused to give it to the scribe, would not reproduce it, and finally declined the discussion. Again, on the 4th of April, the Assembly resumed the suggestion, and notwithstanding the opposition of the Independents, resolved, "That the brethren of this Assembly that had formerly entered their dissent to the propositions about Presbyterial government, shall be a committee to bring in the whole frame of their judgment concerning Church government in a body, with their grounds and reasons." 53 Being thus in a manner constrained to prepare their own desired model, they first requested that it might be brought forward and debated part by part, as the subject of Presbyterial government had been. To this the Assembly objected, both because their own course of procedure had been that of necessity, not choice, and not, in their opinion, the best mode, and because there were not many points against which the Independents had dissented, so that the whole might most easily and conveniently be brought forward at once. The Independents then obtained permission to refrain from attending the ordinary committees, that they might have sufficient leisure to prepare their own model of Church government. Long and anxiously did the Assembly look for the promised model, but in vain. Wearied at last with this protracted delay, on the 22d of September they urged the Independents to make all convenient speed, and requested them to give in a report of what they had done within a fortnight if possible.
One fortnight passed, and no report was produced; another ran its round, and still no report appeared. But, on the 22d of October 1645, instead of the long expected model of Church government, the Independents laid before the Assembly what they termed a Remonstrance, stating the reasons why they declined to bring forward their model of Church government. This was soon afterwards published, without the authority of either Assembly or Parliament, under the title of "A Copy of a Remonstrance." The Assembly immediately prepared an answer to this remonstrance; and having laid it before the Houses of Parliament, it was, after some delay, directed to be printed, by an order of the House of Lords, bearing date 24th February 1646, (or, according to the parliamentary year, 1645.) 54 The answer of the Assembly is expressed in somewhat sharper terms than any of their preceding papers; which is not surprising, considering the disingenuous and evasive conduct of the Independent party; and it certainly exposes their duplicity in a manner altogether unanswerable. The conclusion of this paper is peculiarly significant: "Upon which considerations we think, not that the brethren have any cause to decline the bringing in of their model at this time, but that they have some other cause than what they pretend to, and that something lies behind the curtain which doth not yet appear: possibly not any one of them is yet at a point in his own judgment, nor resolved where to fix, they having professed to keep as a reserve, liberty to alter and retract; which, if their model were given in, they could not so fairly and honorably do: or possibly they are not all fixed in one and the same point: possibly they cannot agree among themselves, for it is easier to agree in dissenting than in affirming; or possibly if they seven can agree, yet some other of their brethren in the city, to whom it may be the model was communicated, did not like it; or if so, yet possibly the brethren might foresee, that if this model should be published, there are some who at present are a strength to them, and expect shelter from them, who may disgust it: or, at least, they are resolved to wait a further opportunity to improve what they have prepared; it may be when the Assembly is dissolved, and so not in a capacity to answer them; or when the Presbyterian government begins to be set up, when they promise to themselves there will be discontent among the people, and look upon that, it may be, as the most advantageous time of putting pen to paper. But whatever the cause be, we commit our cause to the Lord, who loves truth and simplicity, and will, we doubt not, discover it in due time." 55
Almost simultaneous with the production of these papers, one effort more, a last effort, was made to prevent, if possible, a final disagreement between the Presbyterians and the Independents. The Committee of Accommodation, which had been in abeyance for nearly a year, was revived by an order of both Houses of Parliament, dated 6th November 1645. This committee met on the 17th of the same month, and resumed their now well-nigh hopeless task, to find some ground on which both parties could harmoniously unite. Several meetings were held, and several papers framed by each party, but no approximation towards union appeared, both retaining their peculiar views, with little, if any modification. The last meeting took place on the 9th of March 1646, when very long and elaborate answers were produced by the members of Assembly to the opinions, reasoning, and requests of the Dissenting Brethren. After that the committee met no more, the controversy, so far as regarded debate and writing, terminated without any agreement; and the matter became a conflict of principle against intrigue and power.
It is impossible to review this protracted controversy between the Presbyterians and the Independents without the deepest regret. From the very beginning it greatly hampered the proceedings of the Assembly, gave rise to excessively protracted discussions on almost every subject connected with Church government and discipline, exposed the unsettled affairs of both Church and State to all the perils of delay, and gave time to every hostile element to acquire matured strength, and every dangerous machination to obtain complete development. Yet the differences between the two contending parties do not appear to have been necessarily irreconcilable, had it not been for the perverting power of political influence. In point of doctrinal views of sacred truth and modes of public worship there existed no material disagreement between the Presbyterians and the Independents. In matters of discipline, the difference of opinion became narrowed to a single point, and even that point was at one time removed in the Committee of Accommodation, though it was again partially replaced by the Dissenting Brethren. The three propositions against which they gave in reasons of dissent, namely, concerning presbyterial government, the subordination of assemblies, and the power of ordination, were all capable of being reduced to one point also, – and that a point so minute as almost to disappear under discussion, and to require considerable dexterity in its maintainers to discover, and again bring it into prominent manifestation. For the admissions of the Independents at different times extended so far as to leave nothing in dispute, except the single link connecting their system with that of the Brownists, and the other Sectarians of the period, – the right of a congregation, or church, to use their own term, however few in regard to numbers, and even though devoid of a pastor and elders, to possess and to exercise all and sole power of ecclesiastical jurisdiction within itself, without regard to any and every other church in the world, and accountable to none for its procedure, be that what it might.
How the Independents contrived to reconcile this central principle with their repeated concessions respecting the authority of synods, as an ordinance of God, the sentences of which might be enforced by the civil magistrate, it is somewhat difficult to imagine. Nor did they, in point of practice, act according to this principle, or theory; for in the churches of New England, which were all constructed according to the Independent system, they did not hesitate to coerce and restrain, with great rigor and severity, those who presumed to differ from them in religious matters, – inflicting the sentences of imprisonment, banishment, and even perpetual slavery. 56 Yet had they acted according to their own theory, they ought to have passed no other sentence than that of non-communion, each little church of half a dozen having sole power in itself, and being independent of every other. But in New England, where their system had at first freedom to put forth its native tendencies, it was found to be absolutely incompatible with the peace and good order of society; and therefore, the very necessity and duty of self-preservation constrained the Independents of that country to make such alterations in their system as might save them from total disorganization. There is reason to believe, that the consciousness of these inherent defects in their system operated very powerfully in causing the Dissenting Brethren to make the numerous and important concessions which have been stated; and that they would have finally embraced the Presbyterian form of Church government, but for the existence of one or two most unfortunate and injurious preventing causes. They had become involved in the political movements of the period, chiefly through the intriguing character of Nye, and the influence of Cromwell and Sir Harry Vane; and the position which they occupied in the Assembly rendered them in a manner the representatives of the almost innumerable swarms of Sectarians with which the kingdom was rife.
Both of these causes operated so steadily in the same direction that they may be viewed as one, and the effect may be thereby the more clearly traced. The civil war between the King and the Parliament had not continued long till it began to become apparent that it would most probably end in a revolution, and a change of the form of civil government. Whether this had been foreseen from the first by Cromwell, and his own conduct guided by that anticipation, cannot be certainly known; but this, at least, may be safely said, that such an idea would enable us to give a complete explanation of all the proceedings of that otherwise most mysterious man. Let it, then, be assumed that such was his aim and expectation. Nothing could have been more fatal to this prospect than an early and amicable settlement of a pure, free, and comprehensive system of Church government, whether that had been a modified Episcopacy on Ussher’s model, or a Presbyterian form, similar to that of Scotland. In either case the life and sovereignty of the king would have been preserved, even in spite of his own characteristic obstinacy, and peace would have been restored to the country without an absolute revolution. It was therefore Cromwell’s policy to prevent, by every possible means, an early settlement of the great religious questions by which the heart of the community was so deeply and powerfully stirred. For this purpose he maintained a secret but a close intercourse with Nye, and induced him and the other Dissenting Brethren to exert themselves to the utmost in retarding the progress of the Assembly. When that could no longer be accomplished by mere debate, then he devised the Committee of Accommodation, by means of which new methods of delay were employed. In the meantime, he availed himself of the rapid increase of Sectarians, encouraged their enthusiastic feelings, new-modeled the army, placing them in its ranks and himself at its head; then, having swept the loose and disorderly, though daring, cavaliers of Charles from the field, he was able to dissolve the Parliament, break up the Assembly, assume an absolute dictatorship in all matters, civil and religious, and become the chief of a republic or commonwealth.
Such, certainly, was the issue; and it will not be denied that the outline we have traced shows how all these events combined to lead as directly to the result as if they had been all preconcerted and prearranged in the powerful mind of one bold and far-forecasting man. It was easy for such a man to overreach the simple-minded, and to employ the crafty, for the promotion of his own purposes, leading them all the while to imagine that they could not possibly better secure the triumph of their peculiar designs; and it may be fairly supposed that Cromwell did deceive the Independent divines, and make use of them for the accomplishment of an object which they had never contemplated, and from the very thought of which they would have instantaneously recoiled. Yet so deeply was Nye implicated in the political intrigues of Cromwell, that, after the Restoration, it was debated for several hours in council, whether he should be excepted from the act of indemnity, and expiate his conduct by the forfeit of his life. 57 But whatever Nye might have known of Cromwell’s secret schemes, and though his brethren were greatly led by him in the course which they followed, there is no reason to believe that they were fully aware of the object which he had in view, or would have approved it if they had. Certainly Goodwin, Burroughs, and Bridge, were men of too pure and spiritual a mold to have lent themselves consciously to the promotion of any merely political intrigue. 58
There was also evidently not a little of prejudice and jealousy on both sides. The Dissenting Brethren had suffered so much from prelatic despotism, that they entertained a perfect horror of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even to a most absurd extent, rendering them incapable of calm deliberation on the subject. And, on the other hand, the Presbyterians were so shocked with the blasphemous tenets and enormous immoralities of many of the Sectarians, that they were excited to use the language of intolerance, in their earnest desire to procure the suppression of those pernicious errors; and they were led also to regard with considerable distrust the requests of the Independents for toleration, in consequence of the position which they occupied, as in some measure the representatives of the Sectarians, whose wild and dangerous opinions and practices might, as they dreaded, be sanctioned under a general toleration. Neither party took a sufficiently comprehensive view of their own position and that of their opponents, and consequently both parties erred, and contributed to each other’s final overthrow, when, at the Restoration, their common enemy was placed again in the possession of supreme power. Their treatment of each other was mutually destructive, and we cannot exculpate either party from blame, though we think the Independents were the more culpable. And it is but justice to state, that, of the Scottish commissioners, Baillie alone expressed himself with bitterness against the Independents; the rest making many an earnest attempt to allay hostility and promote harmony. But Baillie was himself tinged with prelatic feelings, and had a tendency to political intrigues; as became apparent when he joined the Resolutioners, in the contest which divided and overthrew the Church of Scotland.
Some very important lessons may be learned from the errors of the contending parties in the Westminster Assembly. Whenever divines intermeddle with political affairs, they become both the tools and the victims of diplomatic craft, and promote their own ruin. A Church totally disjoined from the State, and even incapable of junction with it, is not more, perhaps it is less, free from the dangers of political contamination and injury, than one already established, or treating about the terms of an establishment. Such was the fate of the Independents two hundred years ago, equally with that of the Presbyterians; and the Dissenters of both England and Scotland of the present day may admit, that they have received nothing but injury from their political connections, while a Church holding the Establishment principle, but maintaining spiritual freedom, will have to encounter the hostility of all political parties. If ever a thorough and cordial union of evangelical Christians be formed, it must be kept perfectly free from the perverting influence of secular considerations, – and especially from the intrigues of worldly politicians. Christian Churches will find it possible to agree exactly in proportion as they are pure and spiritual; and where that is not the case, any agreement will be but a deceitful truce or an armed neutrality, – incapable of producing a lasting peace, and liable at any moment to be changed into keen and implacable hostility.
[End of Chapter 3]
33 Lightfoot, p. 151.
34 Lightfoot, pp. 165-168.
35 Wodrow’s Analecta; M’Crie’s Sketches, p. 300; Appendix.
36 Lightfoot, pp. 168-170; Baillie, vol. 2 pp. 146, 147; Appendix, Nye.
37 Lightfoot, pp. 214, 215.
38 Lightfoot p. 229.
39 Baillie, vol. 2 p. 148.
40 Appendix, Nye.
41 Lightfoot, p. 250.
42 Lightfoot, pp. 255, 256; Baillie, vol. 2 p. 177.
43 Lightfoot, p. 262.
44 Ibid., p. 267.
45 Lightfoot, p. 268.
46 Baillie, vol. 2 pp. 226, 230.
47 Papers for Accommodation, page 1.
48 Reasons of the Dissenting Brethren, p. 124.
49 Reasons and Answers, p. 138.
50 Ibid., p. 147.
51 Reasons of Dissent, pp. 190, 191.
52 Answer to a Copy of a Remonstrance, page 16.
53 Answer to a Copy of a Remonstrance, p. 19; Baillie, vol. 3 pp. 266, 267.
54 Baillie, vol. 3 p. 344.
55 Answer to a Copy of a Remonstrance, p. 24.
56 Baillie, vol. 2 p. 183.
57 Palmer’s Nonconformist’s Hemorial, vol. 1 p. 96; Appendix, Nye.
58 This I hold myself quite at liberty to state, from a careful perusal of the writings of these pious men; and especially from Goodwin’s work "On the Constitution, Right, Order, and Government, of the Churches of Christ," in the fourth volume of his works; which seems to be the result of his attempt to frame a model of the Independent system of Church government, and which, with all its defects, shows much of a Christian Spirit and temper.