History of the Scotch Church from the signing of the National Covenant to the Restoration of Charles II., 1660 (3)

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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CHAPTER III.concluded

The English nation had become weary of the despotic rule of their prelates. The residence of the commissioners in Scotland while the treaty of Ripon was being concluded, and the free intercourse which some of the principal ministers of Scotland enjoyed with all classes of society in London while acting as chaplains to the Scottish commissioners, had a powerful influence in recommending the Presbyterian form of church government. Petitions began to be presented to Parliament. Some of these prayed for the total abolition of the prelatic system, others only for a reformation in the liturgy, discipline and government. The desire was widespread for a change, and the hope was general that uniformity of worship might be established in the three kingdoms. Following out this idea, which had been first suggested by the commissioners in London, the Assembly of 1641 appointed its moderator, Henderson, to the duty of framing a confession of faith, a catechism and a directory for public worship, that might meet all the requirements of a regularly constituted national Church. But before much progress had been made in this matter, the breach between the king and his Parliament took place. The Scotch commissioners attempted an amicable adjustment of the points in dispute, but their mediation was rejected by the king, who regarded them as the chief cause of all his troubles, from the example they had set of successful resistance to his despotic measures.

The position was a difficult one for the Covenanters. They were disposed to remain neutral in the contest. Loyalty to their sovereign kept them from all overt acts of hostility to him, while all their sympathies were naturally with those who were striving to maintain civil and religious liberty. But the progress of events soon rendered neutrality impossible. A common sense of danger compelled them to take sides with their English brethren, that conjointly they might avert the perils of their country. When, therefore, the English commissioners sought a conference with the members of the Edinburgh Assembly, August, 1643, it was granted, and as the result of their deliberations that ever memorable and remarkable document was adopted styled “THE SOLEMN LEAGUE AND COVENANT.” This bound the united kingdoms to preserve the Reformed religion in the Church of Scotland; to labor for the reformation of religion in England and Ireland according to the word of God and the example of the best Reformed churches; and for the extirpation of popery and prelacy, while the king’s person, authority and honor were to be carefully guarded. This document was first approved by the Assembly, in which it originated, afterward unanimously ratified by the Convention of Estates, and then carried to London, where it was accepted and subscribed by the English Parliament and the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

This latter body deserves very special mention in this connection. It was convened by an ordinance of Parliament issued on the 12th of June, 1643, to devise some method whereby uniformity might be secured in faith, discipline and worship in the two kingdoms. It numbered one hundred and fifty-one members, of which one hundred and twenty-five were divines, the others being lords and commoners. Of this list about twenty-five never met with the Assembly, having either died before the meeting, or absented themselves through fear of the displeasure of the king, or from preference for episcopacy. To supply the vacancies thus caused the Parliament summoned twenty-one additional members, and requested the Church of Scotland to send commissioners to assist them in their deliberations. Upon this commission the General Assembly of that Church placed four of its most eminent ministers, and two elders. Of the thirty-two lay assessors and the one hundred and fifty-two divines, including those sent by Scotland, but sixty-nine appeared the first day, and generally the attendance ranged between sixty and eighty. They met July 1st in the Abbey church, Westminster, and organized by appointing Dr. Twisse prolocutor, who opened the meeting with an able sermon.

The Assembly was peculiar in many respects. It was neither a Convocation called to meet by episcopal authority, nor a General Assembly convened according to the rules in force among Presbyterians. The prelatic form of church government had been abolished, and there was no other yet in existence. The Church was in a transition state, and the civil power, recognizing Christianity as it did, called together a large number of Christian men to deliberate respecting those questions of faith and order which were essential to the highest welfare of the people. The problem to be solved was: On what terms could a national Church be formed so as neither to encroach upon civil liberty, nor surrender those inherent spiritual rights and privileges essential to a Church of Christ?

That the Parliament wished to act with fairness and impartiality in this important matter, is evident from the fact that they named men of all shades of opinion in matters of church government. Their intention was to have the whole subject fully discussed, and with this in view four bishops were selected, besides many others well known for their talents and their attachment to Independency. Though the purpose was a laudable one, yet this was the chief element of weakness in the Assembly. The great diversity of opinions prevented that unity of action which was necessary to accomplish the work given them to do. From the very beginning of the Assembly three parties appeared. The first held that it was the province of the civil magistrate alone to inflict church censure, and that he is the proper head and source of all power, ecclesiastical as well as civil. The second held that every congregation of Christians has entire and complete authority over its members in all religious matters. The third, the Presbyterians, who formed the majority of the Assembly, held firmly to the opinions and principles which were in practice in the Scottish Church.

The first difference arose respecting the headship of the Church, the majority contending that Christ was the Head, and having ascended from the earth committed the rule of his Church to properly designated officers. This proposition was opposed by those who claimed that the infliction of church censure belonged to the king, by reason of his civil magistracy. Though overruled in the Assembly, they triumphed in Parliament, which refused to sanction the proposition. The struggle with the Independents was more protracted, as they derived much of their strength from active friends and sympathizers in Parliament and in the army. With their aid “they contrived to embarrass, retard and overreach the Assembly, till they were able to subvert all its labors, so far as England was concerned; they kept the Parliament in a state of confusion and indecision with their intrigues till they had power to suppress it; and they contrived to paralyze both king and Parliament until the opportunity occurred of putting to death their monarch, and placing the sceptre in the iron grasp of military despotism.”

The uniformity in religious worship in England and Scotland which had been attempted was thus indefinitely postponed. While the jure divino claims urged in behalf of Presbyterian ism may have had some influence in preventing an agreement, yet to those who claimed for the civil magistrate ecclesiastical control likewise, and to the policy of Cromwell, who encouraged the Independents in their factious opposition, the principal share of the blame must be attributed.

For nearly twenty years from the time of the revival of the General Assemblies, and embracing the period of the flight of Charles I. in disguise to Scotland, the defeat of his army by Cromwell, his death and the steps taken to secure a successor to the vacant throne, the Presbyterian system was left for the most part unmolested. The General Assembly of 1647 ratified the Confession of Faith of the Westminster divines, and in 1649 passed an act defining the method of electing ministers, and their installation over parishes. These measures were necessary to perfect the organization of the Church and prepare it for the protracted and terrible conflict which it had to encounter upon the restoration, May, 1660, of Charles II. to the throne of his father.

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