History of Protestantism, vol. 3
Chapter 17: Civil War—Solemn League—Westminster Assembly
War with the Scots—Charles sends a Fleet and Army—The Scots March to the Border—Treaty of Peace—Violated by the King—Second War with the Scots—Charles Defeated—Makes Peace—Church of Scotland has Rest—The Long Parliament—Grievances—Concessions of Charles—Irish Massacre—Suspected Complicity of the King—Execution of Strafford and Laud—Civil War in England—Scotland Joins England—Solemn League—Summary of its Principles—Sworn to by the Parliament of England—The Westminster Assembly—Its General Appearance—Its Individual Members—Frames a Form of Church Government and Confession of Faith—Influence of these Documents
Picture: The Swearing and Subscribing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars’ Churchyard, Edinburgh
The Scots had initiated their rebellion by swearing the National Covenant, and they crowned it by continuing to sit in Assembly after the royal commissioner had ordered them to dissolve. In the opinion of Charles I nothing remained to him but the last resort of kings? the sword. In April, 1640, the king summoned a Parliament to vote him supplies for a war with the Scots. But the Lords and Commons, having but little heart for a war of Laud’s kindling, and knowing moreover that to suppress the rights of Scotland was to throw down one of the main ramparts around their own liberties, refused the money which the king asked for. Charles had recourse to his prerogative, and called upon the bishops to furnish the help which the laity withheld. Less lukewarm than the Parliament, the clergy raised considerable sums in the various dioceses. The queen addressed a letter to the Roman Catholics, who were far from being indifferent spectators of the quarrel between the king and his northern subjects. They willingly contributed to the war, and as the result of the joint subsidy Charles raised an army, and marched to the Scottish Border; he ordered a fleet to blockade the Frith of Forth, and he sent the Marquis of Hamilton with a body of troops to co-operate with Huntly, who had unfurled the standard on the king’s side in the North. HOPV3 545.6
The Scots were not taken unawares by the king’s advance. They knew that he was preparing to invade them. They had sworn their Covenant, and they were as ready to shed their blood in fulfillment of their oath as they had been to subscribe their names. Thirty thousand able-bodied yeomen offered themselves for the service of their country. They were marshaled and drilled by General Leslie, a veteran soldier, who had acquired skill and won renown in the wars of Gustavus Adolphus. Hardly had their preparations been completed when the bonfire, which was to announce the arrival of the invading force, summoned them to battle. Charles’s fleet appeared at the mouth of the Forth; but the Scots mustered in such numbers on the shore that not a man, could land. The main body of the army, under Leslie, in their uniforms of olive or gray plaiden, with a knot of blue ribbons in their bonnets, had meanwhile marched to the Border. Their progress was a victorious one, for it was the flower of the Scots that were in arms, whereas the English soldiers had little heart for fighting. Negotiations were opened between the king and the Scots at Dunse Law, a pyramidal hill that rises near the town of that name, on the north of the Tweed. A treaty of peace was concluded, and, though its terms were neither clear nor ample, the Scots in the excess of their loyalty accepted it. They fought for neither lands nor laurels, but for the peaceable practice of their religion and the quiet enjoyment of their civil rights, under the scepter of their native prince. “Had our throne been void,” says an eye-witness, “and our voices sought for the filling of Fergus’ chair, we would have died ere any one had sitten down on that fatal marble but Charles alone.” 1 HOPV3 545.7
This devoted loyalty on the one side was repaid with persistent perfidy on the other. Next year (1640) Charles anew denounced the Scots as rebels, and prepared to invade them. Not waiting this time till the king’s army should be on the Border, the Scots at once unfurled the blue banner of the Covenant, entered England, encountered the king’s forces at Newburn on the Tyne, and discomfited them, almost without striking a blow. The victors took possession of the towns of Newcastle and Durham, and levied contributions from the whole of Northumberland. Meanwhile the king lay at York; his army was dispirited, his nobles were lukewarm; he was daily receiving letters from London, urging him to make peace with the Scots, and he was persuaded at last to attempt extricating himself from the labyrinth into which his rashness and treachery had brought him, by opening negotiations with the Scots at Ripon. The treaty was afterwards transferred to London. Thus had the king brought the fire into England. HOPV3 546.1
The Church of Scotland had rest for twenty years (1640-1660). The Scots had repelled the edicts and the soldiers of an arbitrary monarch, for though chivalrously loyal to their kings, they would give them no obedience but such as it was meet for freemen to render; and Scotland being again mistress of herself, her General Assemblies continued to meet, her Presbyterian Church government was administered, her flocks were supplied with faithful and diligent pastors, some of whom were distinguished by learning and genius, and vital Christianity flourished. The only drawback to the prosperity of the country was the raids of Montrose, who, professing a zeal for the king’s interests, stained indelibly his own character for humanity and honour, by ravaging many parts of his native land with fire and sword. All the while there raged a great storm in England, and the northern country was too near the scene of strife not to feel the swell of the tempest. Nor could Scotland regard her own rights as secure so long as those of England were in question. It was her own quarrel mainly which had been transferred into the sister kingdom, and she felt called upon to contribute what help she could, by mediation or by arms, to bring the controversy between the king and the Parliament to a right issue. The poise of the conflict was in the hands of the Scots; for, balanced as parties then were in England, whichever side the Scots should espouse would be almost certain of victory. Could they hesitate to say whether Popery or Protestantism should be established in England, when by the triumph of the latter a bulwark would be raised against the advancing tide of despotism which was then threatening all Europe? A strange concurrence of events had thrown the decision of that question into the hands of the Scots; how they decided it, we shall see immediately. HOPV3 546.2
In November, 1640, a Parliament met at Westminster. It is known in history as the Long Parliament. The grievances under which the nation groaned were boldly discussed in it. The laws were infringed; religion was being changed, and evil counselors surrounded the throne; such were the complaints loudly urged in this assembly. Wisdom, eloquence, patriotism, were not lacking to that Parliament; it included the great names of Hyde and Falkland, and Digby, and others; but all this could not prevent a rupture between the king and the people, which widened every day till at last the breach was irreparable. The king’s two favorites, Strafford and Laud, were impeached and brought to the block. The Star Chamber and High Commission Court were abolished. Ship-money, and other illegal imposts, the growth of recent years of despotism, were swept away; and the spirit of reform seemed even to have reached the throne, and made a convert of the king. In his speech on the 25th of January, 1641, the king said, “I will willingly and cheerfully concur with you for the reformation of all abuses, both in Church and commonwealth, for my intention is to reduce all things to the best and purest times, as they were in the days of Queen Elizabeth.” The olive-branch was held out to even the Presbyterians of Scotland. Charles paid a visit at this time to his ancient kingdom, for the end, as he assured his Parliament of Scotland, “of quieting the distractions of his kingdom;” for, said he, “I can do nothing with more cheerfulness than to give my people a general satisfaction.” And, by way of seconding these promises with deeds, he ratified the National Covenant which had been sworn in 1638, and made it law. The black clouds of war seemed to be roiling away; the winds of faction were going down in both countries; the biting breath of tyranny had become sweet, and the monarch who had proved false a score of times was now almost trusted by his rejoicing subjects. HOPV3 546.3
The two kingdoms were now, as a speaker in the English Parliament expressed it, “on the vertical point.” The scales of national destiny hung evenly poised between remedy and ruin. It was at this moment that terrible tidings arrived from Ireland, by which these fair prospects were all at once overcast. We refer to the Irish Massacre. This butchery was only less horrible than that of St. Bartholomew, if indeed it did not equal it. The slaughter of the Protestants by the Roman Catholics commenced on the 23rd of October, 1641, and continued for several months; forty thousand, on the lowest estimate, were murdered; many writers say from two hundred to three hundred thousand. The northern parts of Ireland were nearly depopulated; and the slaughter was accompanied by all those disgusting and harrowing cruelties which marked similar butcheries in the Waldensian valleys. The persons concerned in this atrocity pleaded the king’s authority, and produced Charles’s commission with his broad seal attached to it. There is but too much ground for the dark suspicion that the king was privy to this fearful massacre; 2 but what it concerns us to note here is that this massacre, occurring at this juncture, powerfully and fatally influenced the future course of affairs, revived the former suspicions of the king’s sincerity, kindled into a fiercer flame the passions that had seemed expiring, and hurried the king and the nation onwards at accelerated speed to a terrible catastrophe. HOPV3 548.1
Charles, on his return to England, was immediately presented with the famous Petition and Remonstrance of the State of the Nation. This was no agreeable welcome home. Dark rumors began to circulate that the court was tampering with the army in the North, with a view to bringing it to London to suppress the Parliament. The House provided a guard for its safety. These the king dismissed, and appointed his own train-bands in their room. The members felt that they were not legislators, but prisoners. The king next denounced five of the leading members of Parliament as traitors, and went in person to the House with an armed following to apprehend them. Happily, the five members had left before the king’s arrival, otherwise the civil war might have broken out there and then. The House voted that a great breach of privilege had been committed. Immediately London bristled with mobs, and the precincts of Whitehall resounded with cries for justice. These tumults, said the king, “were not like a storm at sea, which yet wants not its terror, but like an earthquake, shaking the very foundation of all, than which nothing in the world hath more of horror.” 3 The king withdrew to Hampton Court. HOPV3 548.2
Confidence was now at an end between Charles and the Parliament; and the Jesuits, who were plentifully scattered through England, by inflaming the passions on both sides, took care that it should not be restored. After some time spent in remonstrances, messages, and answers, the king marched to Hull, where was store of all kinds of arms, the place having been made a magazine in the war against the Scots. At the gates, Charles was refused entrance by the governor, Sir John Hotham, who held the city for the Parliament. Pronouncing him a traitor, the king turned away and directed his course to Nottingham. 4 There on the 22nd of August, 1642, Charles set up his standard, which, as Lord Clarendon takes note, was blown down the same night, nor could it be replaced till two days thereafter, from the violence of the storm then blowing. It was a worse omen that comparatively few assembled to that standard. The king now issued his summons to the gentlemen of the North to meet him at York. The word, “To your tents, O Israel,” had gone forth; the civil war had commenced. HOPV3 548.3
This recalls us once more to Scotland. The two kingdoms were at that moment threatened with a common peril, and this summoned them to a common duty. That duty was to unite for their mutual defense. They looked around them for a basis on which they might combine, each feeling that to let the other sink was to betray its own safety. The ground ultimately chosen was partly civil and partly religious, and necessarily so, seeing that the quarrel conjoined inseparably the two interests. The bond of alliance finally adopted was the Solemn League and Covenant. Whether we approve or disapprove of its form, it was in its substance undeniably lawful and even necessary, being for the defense of religion and liberty; and in its issue it saved the liberties of Great Britain. HOPV3 549.1
There is a prevalent idea that the Solemn League and Covenant was a merely religious bond, the device of an exclusive and sour Presbyterianism HOPV3 549.2
— a propagandist measure, promoted mainly by propagandist zealots. Nothing could be farther from the truth of history. The Solemn League was the matured and compendious deliverance of the people of England and Scotland on the great question of civil and religious liberty, as it stood in that age; and it put into shape the practical steps which it behoved the two nations to take, if they would retain the blessings of a free Government and a Protestant Church. This bond was framed with much care by the Scottish Parliament and the General Assembly of the Scottish Church, with the concurrence and assistance of the English commissioners who were sent down for that purpose. It was heartily accepted by the ablest statesmen, the most learned divines, and by the whole body of the Protestant people in both England and Scotland. The analysis which Hallam has given of this famous document is remarkably concise and eminently fair. We quote the yet more compendious statement of its provisions by another historical writer, who says: “Looking at both Covenants [the National and the Solemn League], and treating them as one document, the principles therein embodied were the following — HOPV3 549.3
1. 1. Defense of Reformed Presbyterian religion in Scotland.
2. 2. Promotion of uniformity among the Churches of the three kingdoms.
3. 3. Extirpation of Popery, Prelacy, and all unsound forms of religion.
4. 4. Preservation of Parliaments, and of the liberties of the people.
5. 5. Defense of the sovereign in his maintaining the Reformed religion, the Parliaments, and the liberties of the people.
6. 6. Discovery and punishment of malignants, and disturbers of the peace and welfare of the nations.
7. 7. Mutual defense and protection of each individually, and of all jointly, who were within the bonds of the Covenant.
8. 8. Sincere and earnest endeavor to set an example before the world of public, personal, and domestic virtue and godliness. 5
The signing of the Solemn League by the Scottish Convention of Estates and the General Assembly recalled the memorable scene transacted in the Grayfriars’ Churchyard in 1638. Tears rolled down the face of the aged as they took the pen to subscribe, while the younger testified by their shouts or their animated looks to the joy with which they entered into the bond. In the City of London the spectacle was scarcely less impressive, but more novel. On the 25th of September, 1643, the two Houses of Parliament, with the Assembly of Divines, including the Scottish Commissioners, now sitting at Westminster, met in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and after sermon the Solemn League was read, article by article, the members standing uncovered, and swearing to it with uplifted hands. Afterwards, Alexander Henderson, who presided over the famous assembly at Glasgow, delivered an address ending with these words—“Did the Pope at Rome know what is this day transacting in England, and were this Covenant written on the plaster of the wall over against him, where he sitteth, Belshazzar—like, in his sacrilegious pomp, it would make his heart to tremble, his countenance to change, his head and mitre to shake, his joints to loose, and all his cardinals and prelates to be astonished.” The Scots followed up their Covenant by sending an army into England to assist the Parliament against the royal forces. While the controversy is finding its way to an issue through the bloody fields of the civil war, we must turn for a little space to a more peaceful scene. HOPV3 549.4
These civil convulsions, which owed their origin in so large a degree to the innovations and ceremonies of Laud, led many in England to ask whether the National Church had been placed under the best form of government, and whether something more simple than the lordly and complicated regime enacted by Elizabeth might not be more conservative of the purity of the Church and the liberties of the nation? Might it not, they said, be better to complete our Reformation more on the model of the other Protestant Churches of Christendom? The Scots, too, in their negotiations with them in 1640 and 1641, had represented to them how much a “nearer conformity” in worship and discipline would tend to cement the union between the two kingdoms. If the Reformation had brought the two nations together, a yet greater accord in ecclesiastical matters would make their union still stronger, and more lasting. There was profound policy in these views in an age when nations were so powerfully influenced by the principle of religion. From this and other causes the question of Church government was being very anxiously discussed in England; pamphlets were daily issuing from the press upon it; the great body of the Puritans had become Presbyterians; and in 1642, when the royal standard was set up at Nottingham, and the king unsheathed the sword of civil war, the Parliament passed an Act abolishing prelacy; and now came the question, what was to be put in its room? HOPV3 549.5
On the 1st of July, 1643, the Lords and Commons passed an ordinance “for the calling of an Assembly of learned and godly divines and others, to be consulted with by the Parliament for the settling of the government and Liturgy of the Church of England, and for vindicating and clearing of the doctrines of the said Church from false aspersions and interpretations.” To this Assembly 121 divines were summoned, with thirty lay assessors, of whom ten were Lords and twenty Commoners. The divines were mostly clergymen of the Church of England, and several of them were of Episcopal rank. It would be hard to find in the annals of the Church, council or synod in which there were so many men of great talents, ripe scholarship, mature theological knowledge, sober judgment, and sincere piety as in the Assembly which now met at Westminster. The works of many of them, which have descended to our day, attest the range of their acquirements and the strength of their genius. Hallam admits their “learning and good sense” and Richard Baxter, who must be allowed to be an impartial judge, says, “Being not worthy to be one of them myself, I may the more freely speak that truth which I know, even in the face of malice and envy—that the Christian world had never a synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this synod and the synod of Dort.” At the request of the English Parliament, seven commissioners from Scotland sat in the Assembly—three noblemen and four ministers. The names of the four ministers the best proof of whose superiority and worth is that they are household words in Scotland to this day—were Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, Robert Baillie, and George Gillespie. The elders associated with them were the Earl of Cassilis, Lord Maitland, and Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston. They met in Henry VII’s Chapel, and on the approach of winter they retired to the Jerusalem Chamber. They were presided over by Dr. William Twiss, the prolocutor—“a venerable man verging on seventy years of age, with a long pale countenance, an imposing beard, lofty brow, and meditative eye, the whole contour indicating a life spent in severe and painful study.” 6 More the scholar than the man of business, he was succeeded in the chair, after a year’s occupancy, by Mr. Charles Herle—“one,” says Fuller, “so much Christian, scholar, gentleman, that he can unite in affection with those who are disjoined in judgment from him.” 7 At the prolocutor’s table sat his two assessors—Dr. Cornelius Burgess, active and intrepid, and Mr. John White, the “Patriarch of Dorchester.” On either hand of the prolocutor ran rows of benches for the members. There they sat calm, grave, dignified, with mustache, and peak beard, and double Elizabethan ruff, dressed not in canonicals, but black coats and bands, as imposing an Assembly as one could wish to look upon. There with pale, gracious face, sat Herbert Palmer, one of the most scholarly and eloquent men of the day. There was Stephen Marshall, the powerful popular declaimer, who made his voice be heard, in pulpit, in Parliament, in the Assembly, all through these stormy times; there was Edmund Calamy, the grandfather of the yet more celebrated man of that name; there was Edward Reynolds, the scholar, orator, and theologian; there were Arrowsmith and Tuckhey, to whom we mainly owe the Larger and Shorter Catechisms; there were Vines, and Staunton, and Hoyle; there were Ashe, Whitaker, Caryl, Sedgwick, and many others, all giving their speeches and votes for Presbyterian government. HOPV3 550.1
On the Erastian side there were the learned Light-foot, the pious Coleman, and the celebrated John Selden, a man of prodigious erudition, who was deputed as a lay assessor by the House of Commons. His model of Church and State was the Jewish theocracy; “Parliament,” he said, “is the Church.” 8 Apart there sat a little party; they amounted to ten or eleven divines, the most distinguished of whom were Philip Nye and Thomas Goodwin, whom Wood, in his Athenae, styles “the Atlases and patriarchs of independency.” On the right hand of the prolocutor, occupying the front bench, sat the Scottish commissioners. A large share in the debate on all questions fell to them; and their dialectic skill and theological learning, having just come from the long and earnest discussion of the same questions in their own country, enabled them to influence powerfully the issue. HOPV3 550.2
Each proposition was first considered in committee. There it was long and anxiously debated. It was next discussed sentence by sentence and word by word in the Assembly. Into these discussions it is unnecessary for us to enter. Laboriously and patiently, during the slow process of more than five years, did the builders toil in the rearing of their edifice. They sought to the best of their knowledge and power to build it on the rock of the Scriptures. They meant to rear a temple in which three nations might worship; to erect a citadel within which three kingdoms might entrust their independence and liberties. We need not analyze, we need only name the documents they framed. These were the Confession of Faith, the Form of Church Government, the Directory for Public Worship, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, all of which were voted by an overwhelming majority of the Assembly. “It would be difficult to fix upon any Point of doctrine,” says an ecclesiastical writer who labours under no bias in favor of Presbytery, “in which the Confession of Faith materially differs from the [Thirty-nine] Articles. It has more system... The majority of the ministers of the Assembly were willing to set aside episcopacy, though there were some who wished to retain it. The majority were also willing to set up Presbytery in its place, though there were a few who preferred the Independent or Congregational government. On one subject they were all united, and that was in their adherence to the doctrines of Calvin.” 9 HOPV3 551.1
There will be various opinions on the system of doctrine exhibited in the four documents mentioned above, compendiously styled the “Westminster Standards.” There will be only one opinion respecting the logical fearlessness and power, the theological comprehensiveness, and the intellectual grandeur of these monuments. The collected genius and piety of the age-if we may not call it the first, yet hardly inferior to the first age of England’s Protestantism-were brought to the construction of them. They have influenced less the country in which they had their birth than they have done other lands. During the succeeding years they have been molding the opinions of individuals, and inspiring the creed of Churches, in all palaces of the world. They are felt as plastic agencies wherever the English scepter is swayed or the English tongue is spoken; nor are there yet any decided signs that their supremacy is about to pass away. HOPV3 551.2