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Chad van Dixhoorn (ed.), The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1652 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-19–920683-4, 5 Vols, 3200 pp., £655.00.

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben


[1] The Westminster Assembly (1643-53) was the most important ecclesiastical gathering in seventeenth-century England and one of its principal intellectual events. Convened under the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the religious contract which united the parliaments of England and Scotland in the civil war against Charles I, the Assembly was tasked to produce a series of documents which would determine the faith and practice of the established church which, its sponsors hoped, would replace the national churches of the three kingdoms. The project was nothing if not ambitious. Theologians gathered from across England, with a number also attending from Ireland and Scotland, to hammer out a confession of faith, several catechisms, a directory of public worship and other ecclesiastical documents which would reflect the convictions of its dominant party – a large body of divines of largely Presbyterian convictions, satisfied to construct a national church which would be under the formal supervision of Parliament. Many of the delegates disagreed with this position, of course, and there emerged within the Assembly both a party of high church Erastians and a smaller but energetic and increasingly influential body of Independents, the latter party arguing for the autonomy of each congregation under the discipline of local leaders and for a broad religious tolerance. But the state-church Presbyterians prevailed, and for several years they seemed to carry all before them. The Scots and English parliament won the first civil war, as Charles won the peace which followed it, and the dangerous escalation of tensions which led to the second civil war and the collapse in trust between Parliament and its army reflected the power of the Presbyterian political community as well as their unflinching determination to forcibly impose the religious hegemony their theologians had so carefully crafted. The Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Act (1648) reflected the apogee of their power, and made illegal any public defence of theological positions contrary to those of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Act clarified the sometimes ambiguous division between the religious, social and political visions of the majority and minority parties within the Assembly, which continued to meet through this period. But while the Presbyterians enjoyed massive political influence within Parliament, the Independents had the ear of the army – and the army would come to their aid. For in December 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride led the coup which ended the Long Parliament and inaugurated the Rump, the body of radicalised MPs which drove for the trial of the king, and made possible his execution and the republican experiment which followed.

[2] The Westminster Assembly may not loom large in the scholarship on the northern Renaissance, but, despite its late date and limited geographical influence, it ought to do so. The Assembly produced a confession of faith which was adopted almost in toto by the Church of Scotland, and remains today the standard confession of faith of Presbyterian churches worldwide, with all of the political consequences that entails, not least in the theological, covenantal and legal framework of the American war of independence. But, perhaps much more importantly for readers of this journal, in meetings that bristled with personal, party and sometimes national rivalries, the Assembly prepared the documents that energized the social vision that provided critical materiel for important parts of civil wars conservatism. And this extraordinarily detailed edition of the Assembly’s minutes offers an unparalleled opportunity to see how this vision developed.

[3] Chad van Dixhoorn, the principal editor of these volumes, first developed his interest in the Minutes in his voluminous University of Cambridge PhD thesis. The text of the Minutes, which he established in that project, is here annotated and explained, to a very high level of competence, by an eminently capable team of associates – Mark A. Garcia, Joel A. Halcomb and Inga Jones. Their combined work extends this edition of the Minutes to five volumes and over one million words. The bulk of the text, spread across the 2,400 pages of the central three volumes, represents the Minutes of this Assembly in their entirety, here liberated from what John Morrill (who would know) has described as “the worst handwriting I have yet encountered from the seventeenth century.”[1] The fifth volume provides an extensive handlist of the papers produced by the Assembly and a comprehensive set of indices. Most readers of this journal will be most interested in the first volume, however, in which van Dixhoorn and his colleagues recreate the material, personal, and theological world of an Assembly in which delegates could debate abstruse points of Reformed scholastic theology while also spending hours discussing the geography of Palestine or the distance travelled by sound in proceedings which were widely reported, not least to foreign Reformed churches, and witnessed by diverse audiences, including a travelling Muslim. The first volume contains essays which explain the layout of the Jerusalem Chamber, where discussions took place, as well as the typical seating patterns of the divines – a pattern which helps interpret some of the tabulated material on which divine was most likely to speak in a debate, which divine was most likely to be interrupted in a debate, and by whom. The point is fascinating – for while we might expect to reach for theological reasons for these kinds of intervention, they might sometimes be better explained by knowing that two divines who didn’t really get on sat rather too close to one another.

[4] It is extremely difficult to do justice to this edition in a review like this. These Minutes are a critical record of a decade of theological controversy, but they are a window into a mental world which could have dominated mid-seventeenth-century England, Scotland and Ireland, and into the imaginations of the men by whom that mental world was constructed. This edition offers a model of sympathetic editorial practice in a project which occupied its principal contributor for eleven years of full-time research. John Morrill has described this edition as “an astounding achievement” – a judgment which will be echoed by all students of the northern Renaissance.[2]

[1] John Morill, “Foreword,” in i. ix. [back to text]

[2] Morill, “Foreword,” in i. x. [back to text]

 Queen’s University Belfast, February 2015