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Westminster Confession

One of the most influential creeds of Calvinism, a creedal standard for all Presbyterian churches, drawn up at Westminster (1643-46). The immediate background to the Confession lies in the tensions between Charles I* and his subjects, growing in large measure out of Charles's insistence on imposing Anglicanism. In an age when it seemed obvious that the state, concerned with the welfare of its citizens, was hence concerned with religious affairs, such a stance had political implications. The Puritans* felt that the creeds of the Church of England* must be revised, so that a pure religion would be taught and preached. The Scots, convinced Calvinists, resisted any attempt to remodel their creeds. In 1638 the historic National Covenant* affirmed this, and a Scots invasion of N England forced Charles to call Parliament into session. But it demanded far-reaching concessions from Charles which he refused, and by 1642 civil war had broken out.

In this context, as part of parliamentary efforts at reform, an assembly was called to meet at Westminster to formulate a creed suitable for the English and Scottish churches (1643). Civil strife continued as the assembly met. Dominated by Puritan Calvinists, with only a few Puritan “Independent” delegates, the assembly also included Scots Calvinists (from England, 121 clergy, 30 laymen; from Scotland, 4 clergy, 2 laymen; some 35 of the delegates did not appear due to the civil strife). Meeting for three years (1643-46), the delegates had little difficulty in agreeing on doctrine (two-thirds of the Confession), but the chapters on church and state took somewhat longer to draw up. The creed is a systematic exposition of orthodox Calvinism, in scholastic formulation. The sovereignty of God is stressed, and election to salvation emphasized. Questions disputed among Calvinists (notably Supralapsarianism) were avoided. Adopted in England and Scotland, the Confession stayed on as a creedal standard in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

In England, Cromwell rose to power, the king was executed (1649), and the Commonwealth set up. Resting on the power of the army, where Puritan “Independents” were strong, it granted religious toleration to all Protestants. Cromwell had to conquer Scotland by force (the Scots, though Calvinist, supported their royal family), and in Ireland, Catholicism was temporarily driven underground. The Commonwealth lasted but a decade. Charles II* became King (1660), and the Anglican Church again became the established church in England. Scotland retained its established Presbyterian Church.

See G.S. Hendry, The Westminster Confession for Today (1960).