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view the character of the Westminster Assembly, the purpose
for which it met, and the result of its deliberations. Yet, notwithstanding this universally felt necessity, the subject has never received an adequate investigation, and consequently still remains in such obscurity as renders it exposed to every kind of misrepresentation. Some have regarded it as comparatively an isolated event, not very influential on those around it, and serving chiefly to display, in a combined form, the characters of the men and measures of those times; others have viewed it as the abortive attempt of a parcel of narrow-minded and yet ambitious fanatics, serving to reveal their dangerous pretensions, and then, by its failure, exposing them to deserved ridicule. The mere student of civil history will doubtless see little in it to attract his notice, engrossed, as his attention will be, by the schemes of politicians and the din of arms; while, on the other hand, the mere theologian will generally be little disposed to regard any thing about it, except its productions. But the man who penetrates a little deeper into the nature of those unrevealed but powerful influences which move a nation's mind, and mould its destinies, will be ready to direct his attention more profoundly to the objects and deliberations of an Assembly which met at a moment so critical, and was composed of the great master-minds of the age ; and the theologian who has learned to view religion as the vital principle of human nature, equally in nations and in the individual man, will not easily admit the weak idea, that such an Assembly could have been an isolated event, but will be disposed earnestly to inquire what led to its meeting, and what important consequences followed. And although the subject has not hitherto been investigated with such a view, it may, we trust, be possible to prove, that it was the most important event in the century in which it occurred; and that it has exerted, and in all probability will yet exert, a far more wide and perma nent influence upon both the civil and the religious history of mankind than has generally been even imagined.
Intimately connected as the Westminster Assembly was both with the civil and the religious history of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland, it will be absolutely necessary to give a preliminary outline of the leading
events in both countries, from the time of the Reformation till the meeting of the Assembly, in order that a clear conception may be obtained of the cause of its meeting, the circumstances in which it met, and the object which it was intended to accomplish. We shall then be in a fit condition to investigate the proceedings of the Assembly itself, to understand their true character, to mark their direct bearing, and to trace their more remote results.
The circumstances that led to the disagreement between Henry VIII. and the Pope are so well known, that it is unnecessary to do more than merely allude to them. Whether Henry actually began to entertain conscientious scruples respecting the lawfulness of his marriage with Katherine of Arragon, his brother Arthur's widow, before he became enamored of Anne Boleyn, or whether his incipient affection for that lady induced him to devise a method of being released from his wife, is an inquiry of no great moment in itself, except as to its bearing on the character of the monarch. Suffice it to state, that the king consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury, and required him to procure the opinions of the bishops of England on the subject. All, with the exception of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, declared that in their judgment it was an unlawful marriage. But as a dispensation had been obtained from the pope, before the marriage took place, it became necessary to procure a papal recognition of the intended divorce; which was a matter of no little difficulty, both because such a measure would seem to invalidate a previous papal bull, to the discredit of the doctrine of infallibility, and because there would arise a serious question respecting the legitimacy of the Princess Mary, and offence might be taken by the King of Spain. All these dangers were clearly seen by Cardinal Wolsey; who, accordingly, without venturing directly to oppose the king's desires, contrived to cause delays, to procure evasive answers, and to protract the proceedings by every method which fear of the issue could prompt and deep craft could devise. At length Cranmer suggested, that, instead of a long and fruitless negotiation at Rome, it would be better to consult all the learned men and universities of Christendom, to ascertain whether the marriage were unlawful in itself, by virtue of any divine precept; for if that were proved, then it would follow, that the pope's dispensation could be of no force to make that lawful which God has declared unlawful.* When the king heard of this suggestion he immediately adopted it, sent for Cranmer, received him into favor, and placed such confidence in his honor, integrity and judgment, that it was never afterwards thoroughly shaken, either by the artifices of enemies, or the varying moods of the capricious sovereign himself.
Cranmer prosecuted the scheme which he had suggested so successfully that he procured, both from the English universities, and from nearly all the learned men in Europe, answers, to the effect that the king's marriage was contrary to the law of God. These answers were laid before the Parliament, which met in January, 1531, and assented to by both Houses, as also by the Convocation of the Clergy, which was met at the same time. Still the Pope had not consented, and the hostility between him and Henry was necessarily increased by what had taken place regarding the proposed divorce. Henry was not disposed to pause now, till he should have declared his power over the clergy; and as they were all implicated in some of Wolsey's proceedings, which had been declared to have involved him in a præmunire, they were held to be amenable to all its penalties. Their danger rendered them submissive, and in the convocation at Canterbury a petition was agreed upon to be offered to the king, in which he was styled, 5. The Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and the clergy of England.” Gratified with this title, the king granted a pardon to the clergy; but did not, as they had probably expected, permit it to remain an empty title. In May, 1532, he informed the House of Commons that he had learned that all the prelates, at their consecration, swore an oath quite contrary to that which they swore to the crown-so that it seemed they were the pope's subjects rather than his ; referring it to their care to take such order in it that the king might not be deluded. The prorogation of the Parliament prevented the immediate collision between the civil and the ecclesiastical powers, which the investigation of that point would have caused; but it was now abundantly evident on what the
* Burnet's History of the Reformation, vol. i. p. 125.
king had bent his mind. The question respecting the pope's supremacy was now the subject of inquiry and discussion throughout the kingdom ; and at length it was formally brought before Parliament, and on the 20th of March, 1534–5, a bill was passed, abolishing papal supremacy in England, and declaring the king to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England ; and in the following June a circular letter was sent by the king, not only to all the bishops, but also to all justices of the peace, requiring the universal promulgation of the decree respecting the abolition of the pope's supremacy and the recognition of his own; and empowering the civil functionaries to ascertain whether the clergy did their duty sincerely.* So delighted was King Henry with his title of Supreme Head of the Church, that he caused it to be enacted that it should be for ever joined to the other titles of the crown, and be reckoned one of them; and even caused a seal to be cut for public use in his new ecclesiastical office; and when directing a visitation of the whole clergy of England, dated the 18th of September, 1535, added these words: “Under our seal, that we use in ecclesiastical matters, which we have ordered to be hereunto appended.”+
It will at once be seen, that the title of Supreme Head of the Church, and the .power in ecclesiastical matters which arose from it, was claimed by Henry not as the necessary means for promoting reformation, nor from any religious conviction that the pope's assumption of it was in itself sinful; but solely from the desire of rescuing himself from any control, and for the purpose of possessing, in his own person, the most full and absolute power that could be imagined. And it rendered it at once a matter of utter impossibility for the Church of England to prosecute its own reformation according to the deliberate judgment of its most enlightened members, whatever might be their opinion of the requirements of the Word of God. To this fatal dogma of the king's supremacy and headship of the Church of England may be directly traced nearly all the corruptions of that Church, and nearly all the subsequent civil calamities of the British Isles. For would not be difficult to prove that there can be no security for either civil or religious liberty in any country where the supreme civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions are both possessed by the same ruling power. It matters little whether the ruling power be ecclesiastical, holding the civil subordinate to it, as the Papacy; or civil, holding the ecclesiastical subordinate, as in the case of Henry and his successors; for in either case the result is a despotism, under which the
Burnet's Hist. Refi, vol. iii. p. 144.
† Ibid., vol. iii. p. 152.
people must sink into utter degradation, or against which they are provoked, from time to time, to rise in all the dangerous fierceness of revolutionary convulsion. But it is enough merely to suggest this view at present; it will demand more particular examination in future stages of our inquiries.
Almost the first public use made by the king of his acknowledged supremacy in religion, was to send Cranmer, now Archbishop of Canterbury, on a visitation of the monasteries throughout the kingdom. It was no difficult matter to convict these popish institutions of such crimes and abominations as are not fit to be mentioned, “equal,” says Burnet; “ to any that were in Sodom ;" so that their suppression was but the sweeping away of a great moral nuisance, too loathsome any longer to be endured. It served, at the same time, as a measure by which the king's coffers were replenished, some of his favorites enriched, and the better part of the nation gratified by the removal of a system of enormities which had been long regarded with extreme detestation. About the same time it was resolved that the Bible should be translated into English, and published for the instruction of the community ; though this was strenuously resisted by a large proportion of the clergy, and carried only by the influence of Cranmer and the queen. The fall of the queen, which took place soon after, threatened to retard the progress of reformation, and the pope attempted a reconciliation with the king. But Henry had no inclination to subject himself again to papal control; and following Cranmer's advice, he proceeded to make further changes. In the year 1536 the Convocation were induced to agree to certain articles of religion, which were accordingly promulgated on the royal authority. In these articles, the standards of faith were declared to be, -the Bible, the Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and the decrees of the first four general Councils, without