Westminster Assembly Of Divines, a convocation of clergymen and laymen, who assembled at Westminster, England, by direction of parliament, July 1, 1643, and remained in session till Feb. 22, 1649. The attempt of Charles I. to force upon the Scottish church the liturgy of the church of England, and the dissatisfaction both in England and Scotland with the oppression which had been exercised against the dissenting bodies, led the parliamentary commissioners to propose to the king, in the negotiations at Oxford (Jan. 30 to April 17, 1643), that he should give his assent to "a bill for calling an assembly of learned and godly divines and others, to be consulted with by the parliament for the settling of the government and the liturgy of the church of England, and for the vindication of the doctrine of the said church from false aspersions and interpretations." This proposition was not sanctioned by the king, but was afterward converted into "an ordinance of the lords and commons in parliament," and passed June 12, 1643. By this act 121 clergymen, 10 lords, and 20 lay commoners were summoned by name, to meet and constitute the assembly. To these were subsequently added, to fill vacancies, about 20 more. Of those thus appointed about 20 were clergymen of the church of England, and several of them afterward bishops.
The king on June 22 by a proclamation forbade the meeting of the assembly, and few of the church of England members took their seats. On the opening of the assembly 69 of the clerical members were in attendance, and at different times 96 of them were present, though the usual attendance ranged between 60 and 80. The great body of the members, both clerical and lay, were Presbyterians; 10 or 12 were Independents, or as they called themselves Congregationalists; and five or six styled themselves Erastians. All, or nearly all, were Calvinists. On Sept. 15 four Scottish ministers and two lay assessors were, by a warrant from the parliament, admitted to seats in the assembly (but without votes), as commissioners from the church of Scotland, which on Aug. 17 had passed the "-Solemn League and Covenant," binding on their part the ecclesiastical bodies of the two nations in a union, which was substantially Presbyterianism. The "Solemn League and Covenant" was subsequently accepted by the Westminster assembly, and the English parliament ordered it to be printed Sept. 21, and subscribed on Sept. 25, when the house of commons, with the Scottish commissioners and the assembly of divines, met in the church of St. Margaret's, Westminster. The house of lords did not take the covenant till Oct. 15. It was expressly provided in the "ordinance" that the assembly should not assume or exercise any jurisdiction, power, or authority ecclesiastical whatsoever, or any other power, except merely the right "to confer and treat among themselves of such matters and things, touching and concerning the liturgy, discipline, and government of the church of England, or the vindicating and clearing of the doctrine of the same," etc.
The power of the Independent party in the parliament was constantly growing during their session, and its influence was sufficient to prevent much action which would otherwise have been taken, in the way of advice and recommendation, by the assembly. The important part of the assembly's work was all performed in tho first three or four years of its existence. The parliament ordered the members, Oct. 12, 1643, forthwith to "confer and treat among themselves of such discipline and government as may be most agreeable to God's holy word, etc, to be settled in this church, in stead and place of the present church government by archbishops, bishops, etc, which is resolved to be taken away; and touching and concerning the directory of worship, or liturgy, hereafter to be in the church." In compliance with this order, the assembly took up "church government," so far as it referred to ordination, and on April 20, 1644, laid their advice before both houses of parliament, by whom it was not finally ratified till Oct. 2. The " Directory for Public Worship " was taken up'May 21, and on Nov. 20 the greater part was presented to parliament. Marriage, burial, visiting the sick, etc, were still behind.
On Dec. 3 the part pertaining to marriage was completed, and ordered to be sent to both houses of parliament. On the last day of the year 1644 the rest of the directory was sent up, and it was established by an ordinance, Jan. 3,1645. The " Confession of Faith " was submitted in part to the house of commons on Sept. 25, and to the hous.e of lords on Oct. 1, 1646; the remainder was carried up to the commons on Dec. 4, and to the lords on Dec. 7. The house of lords passed the first part of the "Confession of Faith" to a third reading on Nov. 6, and then sent it to the commons for concurrence. ' On Feb. 16, 1647, the lords passed the remainder, asking the concurrence of the lower house to this also; but owing to political and other disturbances nothing definite was done by the house of commons till February, 1648, and then with such difference as called for conferences, the first of which was held March 22. On June 20 the lords sent in their agreement to all the alterations, except that pertaining to marriage; and in this form the "Confession of Faith" was adopted by parliament. A copy of this authorized form (omitting chapters xxx. and xxxi., paragraph 4 of chap, xx., paragraph 4 in part and all of paragraph 5 and 6 of chap, xxiv.) is in the British museum.
The " Larger Catechism " was sent to the house of commons on Oct. 22, 1647; the "Shorter Catechism" on Nov. 25, 1647. In the autumn of 1648 both houses of parliament ordered the printing and publishing of the "Shorter Catechism," but the house of lords was discontinued before it had acted on the "Larger Catechism." The other papers issued by the assembly consisted only of admonitions to parliament and the nation, controversial tracts, letters to foreign churches, etc. The annotations on the Bible usually attributed to them, though made in part by some of the members, did not proceed from the assembly at all. Rutherford, the last of the Scottish commissioners, left the assembly Nov. 9, 1647, Gillespie having left in July of the same year, and the others the year before. In February, 1649, after it had held 1,163 sittings, the parliament by an ordinance changed what remained of the assembly into a committee for trying and examining ministers, and in this form it continued to hold weekly sittings till the dissolution of the long parliament, April 20; 1653. The " Directory for Public Worship " was adopted and ratified by the general assembly of the church of Scotland in February, 1645, the "Confession of Faith" in August, 1647, and the catechisms in July, 1648; and these are still the standards of that establishment.
They are also recognized by the Free church of Scotland, and by the other seceding Presbyterian bodies in that country. The presbyterian form of church government was by vote of the house of commons to be tried for a year, but was never fully established in England by legislative authority; and at the restoration, as none of these acts had received the royal sanction, it was not deemed necessary to pass any act to restore episcopacy to its former authority. The confession of faith and catechism are now the standard of the English Presbyterians, and of the Irish Presbyterian church. They have been adopted, with slight alterations, by all the Presbyterian bodies in the United States, and the " Directory for Worship," with some modifications, is in general use in these bodies. The " Shorter Catechism" was also introduced into New England by the early ministers, and formed a part of the " New. England Primer," which for two centuries was the book of primary instruction of the children of Puritan families. The Congregationalists, as a denomination, recognize the confession of faith and catechisms as substantially expressing their doctrines.
Dr. Thomas Goodwin, a member of the assembly, wrote, says his son, 14 or 15 volumes of notes of its daily proceedings; there are two volumes by George Gillespie, one of the Scottish commissioners, in the advocates' library, Edinburgh; also the official minutes of the assembly, in three folio volumes, in Dr. Williams's library, London, edited in part by Al. F. Mitchell. - See "History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines " (Presbyterian board of publication, Philadelphia, 1841); Hetherington's " History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines" (8vo, Edinburgh, 1843); and Neal's" History of the Puritans".