The Westminster Assembly of Divines was a synod composed of theologians (or "divines") and members of Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England. It was called during the lead up to the First English Civil War by the Long Parliament, which was influenced by Puritanism and opposed to the religious policies of Charles I and William Laud. As part of a military alliance with Scotland, Parliament agreed that the outcome of the Assembly would bring the English Church into closer conformity with the Church of Scotland, which was presbyterian. Scottish commissioners attended and advised the Assembly as part of the agreement. The Assembly met for ten years (1643–53), and in the process produced a new Form of Government, a Confession of Faith, two catechisms (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.
Disagreements over church government caused open division in the Assembly, despite attempts to maintain unity. The party of divines who favored presbyterianism, or government by hierarchies of elected assemblies, was in the majority. However, political and military realities led to greater influence for the congregational party, which favored autonomy for individual congregations. Parliament eventually adopted a presbyterian form of government, but not to the degree the presbyterian divines desired. During the Restoration in 1660, all of the documents of the Assembly were repudiated and episcopal church government was reinstated in England. However, because of their acceptance by dissenting churches and the Church of Scotland, these documents became influential worldwide through missionary expansion.
The Assembly worked in the Reformed theological tradition. It took the Bible as the authoritative word of God, from which all theological reflection must be based. Though the divines were committed to the doctrine of predestination to salvation, there was some disagreement over the doctrine of particular redemption—that Christ died only for those whom the Father chose to save. The Assembly also held to Reformed covenant theology, a framework for interpreting the Bible. The Assembly's Confession was the first of the Reformed confessions to include the covenant of works, in which God promised life to Adam on condition of perfect obedience.
Parliament called the Westminster Assembly during a time of increasing hostility between Charles I, monarch of England and Scotland, and the Puritans. Puritans could be distinguished by their insistence that worship practices be supported implicitly or explicitly by the Bible, while their opponents gave greater authority to traditional customs. They did not, however, leave the established church. Under Charles, the Puritans' opponents were placed in high positions of authority, most notably William Laud who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, even though these "high churchmen" were in the minority. Puritans were forced to keep their views private.
There were also conflicts between the king and the Scots, whose church was ruled by a system of elected assemblies called presbyterianism. James, Charles's predecessor, imposed episcopalianism, or rule by hierarchies of bishops, and the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots in 1604. The Scots considered this a reversion to Roman Catholicism. Charles furthered English impositions on the Church of Scotland in 1636 and 1637. This led to the First Bishops' War between Charles and the Scots in 1639. Charles called what came to be known as the Short Parliament to raise funds for the war, but he soon dissolved it when it began voicing opposition to his policies. Following the Second Bishops' War with the Scots in 1640, Charles was forced to call another parliament to raise additional funds.
What came to be known as the Long Parliament also began to voice vague grievances against Charles, many of which were religious in nature. Parliament had many Puritans and Puritan-sympathizing members, who generally opposed the current episcopal system. However, there was little agreement over what shape the church should take. Later in 1640, the Root and Branch petition was presented to the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. It was signed by about 15,000 Londoners and called for reform of the church to curb perceived abuses by bishops. Committees were organized in the House of Commons to deal with various religious issues, leading to the imprisonment of Archbishop Laud and his supporters in the Tower of London and the abolition of the Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber, courts which had inflicted severe punishments on Puritan dissenters.
Calling the assembly
The idea of a national assembly of theologians to advise Parliament on further church reforms was first presented to the House of Commons in 1641, and was included in the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances which Parliament presented to Charles on 1 December 1641. Charles responded on 23 December that the church required no reforms. Undeterred, Parliament passed three bills in 1642 appointing an assembly and stipulating that its members would be chosen by Parliament. Charles, whose royal assent was required for the bills to become law, was only willing to consider such an assembly if the members were chosen by the clergy, as was done in Convocation, the assembly of clergy of the Church of England.
Defying the king, between 12 February and 20 April 1642, each county delegation of England in Commons chose two divines, in addition to two for each county of Wales, four for London, and two for each University. County delegations often chose divines from their own county, but not always. Commons chose the members in this way in order to assure that their local constituencies were represented in the decision. The House of Lords, Parliament's upper house, added fourteen additional names on 14 May, to which Commons agreed. Meanwhile, relations continued to deteriorate between the king and Parliament. Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham on 22 August, marking the beginning of the First English Civil War. The start of the war lent support to the cause of the Assembly in Parliament, because holding it would convince the Scots that Parliament was serious about reforming the church and induce them to come to their aid, but the war also added additional strain to the already busy Parliament.
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Parliament finally passed an ordinance to hold the assembly on its own authority without Charles's assent on 12 June. It named as many as 121 ministers,[a] twenty members of Commons, and ten members of the House of Lords, and was printed on 20 June. The Assembly was almost entirely English; Parliament appointed Englishmen for the counties of Wales, but the French stranger churches sent two ministers in place of any from the Channel Islands. At a time when the majority of clergy could not read, about four-fifths of those appointed to the Assembly had at least one university degree. Many were internationally recognized scholars of the Bible, ancient languages, patristics, and scholastic theology. Many were also famous preachers. Most of these theologians had retained their positions in the Church during the tenure of William Laud, some had been ejected, some had been cited by ecclesiastical courts, some had fled to the Continent, and one to the American colonies. Nonetheless, they all considered themselves members of the Church of England, had received episcopal ordination, and most were conformists, meaning they agreed to follow the Act of Uniformity 1558 and the Book of Common Prayer.
The Assembly was strictly under the control of Parliament, and was only to debate topics which Parliament directed. Assembly members were not permitted to state their disagreements with majority opinions or share any information about the proceedings, except in writing to Parliament.
Twenty-two appointed members of the Assembly died before 1649, and they along with those who did not attend for other reasons were replaced by nineteen additional members. Three non-voting scribes were also added in 1643.
Revising the Thirty-Nine Articles
The Assembly's first meeting began with a sermon by William Twisse, the Assembly's prolocutor[b] or chairman, in the nave of Westminster Abbey on 1 July 1643. The room was so full that the House of Commons had to send members ahead to secure seats. Only sixty-nine of the 120 summoned theologians appeared, probably because Parliament only provided four or five days notice. Following the sermon, the divines processed to the Henry VII Chapel, which would be their place of meeting until 2 October when they moved to the warmer and more private Jerusalem Chamber. After their initial meeting they adjourned for about a week, as Parliament had not yet given specific instructions.
On 6 July, they received a set of rules from Parliament and were ordered to examine the first ten of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the current doctrinal standard of the Church of England, and "to free and vindicate the Doctrine of them from all Aspersions of false Interpretations". After a day of fasting, the Assembly took a vow, as directed by Parliament, to "not maintain any thing in Matters of Doctrine, but what I think, in my conscience, to be truth". The divines organized themselves into three standing committees, though each committee was open to any member of the Assembly. The committees would be assigned topics and prepare propositions for debate in the full Assembly following each morning of committee meetings.
The committees discussed various articles on the eleventh and twelfth, and the full Assembly began discussing the Thirty-Nine Articles on 12 July 1643. It resolved, after some debate, that all the doctrines of the Thirty-Nine articles would need to be proven from the Bible. They then began to debate the suffering of Christ, found in the second article. Since John Calvin argued during the Reformation that the descensus (the clause of the Apostles' Creed stating that Christ descended into Hell) referred to Christ's suffering on the cross rather than an actual descent into the place of the dead, the issue of Christ's sufferings was hotly contested among English Calvinists. The Assembly debated the descensus until 17 August. A minority argued that the article should be entirely expunged, even though the divines had been ordered to defend the articles. It was finally decided that Calvin's reading was untenable, but that the descensus did not imply a descent into the literal place of hell, and that the article should be amended to say that the descensus simply meant that Christ "continued in the state of the dead" until the resurrection.
The issue of adherence to the ecumenical creeds was quickly raised again, however, when the Assembly began to debate the eighth article, which recommended the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed to be received and believed. The Assembly was unable to resolve conflicts between those who would not be bound by creeds, arguing that the articles only require the "matter" of the creeds be believed, and those who wished to retain the existing language that the creeds be "thoroughly received and beleeved". On 25 August, the article was put off until the rest of the articles could be dealt with.
Parliament then ordered the divines to treat the eleventh to nineteenth articles. During debate over the eleventh article, on justification, the divines sought to revise the articles in order to polemicize against Roman Catholics and especially antinomians. The divines used the term "antinomian" rather loosely to refer to beliefs about salvation with which they disagreed but were not Arminian. Many of those called Antinomians were vigorously opposed to the Arminian belief that faith is a condition of salvation, and in doing so they took justification to be in eternity rather than applied to the believer in time. This often led to a belief that believers ought not confess or even avoid sin because it had been forgiven in eternity. The antinomians were much more immediately threatening to the Assembly than the Catholics, and some of the divines were willing to support a statement for the article on justification which actually leaned in a more Roman Catholic direction than the original by suggesting that in justification the believer is made righteous as well as accounted righteous in order to oppose the antinominans as strongly as possible.
Debating church government
From the beginning of the First Civil War, the Long Parliament recognized that they would need assistance from the Scots. In return for a military alliance, the Scottish Parliament required the English to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, which stipulated that they would bring their church into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament sent commissioners to London to represent Scotland's interests to the English Parliament. Eleven of these, four theologians and seven members of Parliament, were also invited to the Assembly. The commissioners were given the opportunity to become full voting members of the Assembly but declined, preferring to maintain their independence as commissioners of their own nation and church. Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, and Alexander Henderson were the most outspoken of the commissioners. Gillespie, Henderson, and John Maitland began sitting in the Assembly on 15 September, and Rutherford joined on 20 November along with Robert Baillie.
On 12 October 1643, Parliament ordered the Assembly to cease work on the Thirty-Nine Articles and to begin to frame a common form of church government for the two nations. The Assembly would spend a quarter of its full sessions on the subject of church government. The majority of the Assembly members supported presbyterian polity, though many were not dogmatically committed to it. Several members of this group, numbering about twenty and including William Twisse, favored a "primitive" episcopacy, which would include elements of presbyterianism and a reduced role for bishops. There were also several congregationalists, who favored autonomy for individual local churches and whose core influential group was composed of Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Sidrach Simpson, Jeremiah Burroughs, and William Bridge. They were often called the "dissenting brethren" in the Assembly. They have sometimes been labeled "Independents", however, they rejected this term, and the Assembly members for the most part reserved it for separatists. The congregationalist divines cannot be equated with separatists and Brownists, as they had accepted episcopal ordination and remained in the Church of England. Their influence was assisted by the success of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army, which shared their desire for autonomy of individual congregations.
The entire Assembly was Erastian in the sense that the body had been called by Parliament and was completely under state control. However, those labeled "Erastian" at the Assembly believed the civil authority should hold the power of church discipline rather than clergy and eldership. They did not see any particular form of church government as divinely mandated, and because of this they became allied with the dissenting brethren when it became clear that a presbyterian establishment would be much less tolerant of congregationalism than Parliament. There were only two divines at the Assembly who held the Erastian view: John Lightfoot and Thomas Coleman, but the presence of members of Parliament, especially John Selden, as well as the fact of parliamentary oversight of the Assembly gave it disproportional influence. Several episcopalians were also included in the summoning ordinance, but Parliament may have nominated them in order to lend greater legitimacy to the Assembly and not have expected them to attend. Only one, Daniel Featley, participated, and he only until his arrest for treason in October 1643.
Debate on church officers began on 19 October. The Assembly began with the issue of ordination, as many of the divines were concerned about the rise of various sectarian movements and the lack of any mechanism for ordination of ministers of the established church. While some members did not seem to think ordination necessary for preachers (though they should not administer the sacraments without it), a majority of the divines thought any regular preaching without ordination unacceptable and wished to erect a provisional presbytery for purposes of ordination. There was also debate at this early stage over the nature of the visible church. The congregationalists considered a church to be a congregation, while the majority considered the national church to be a unity and were alarmed at the prospect of a disintegrated English church. The Assembly also spent some time, beginning on 22 November, debating the office of ruling elder, a lay officer in Scottish and continental Reformed churches. The English regarded it as a novelty and did not see scriptural justification for it, though in the end they conceded to the Scots on prudential grounds. Despite these debates, up until the end of 1643 there was hope that a common church government could be framed that would be satisfactory to all parties involved.
On 3 or 4 January 1644, the five leading dissenting brethren signaled a break with the rest of the Assembly when they published An Apologeticall Narration, a polemical pamphlet appealing to Parliament. It argued that the congregational system was more amenable to state control of religious matters than that of the presbyterians because they did not desire the church to retain any real power except to withdraw fellowship from aberrant congregations. By 17 January, the majority of the Assembly had become convinced that the best way forward was a presbyterian system similar to that of the Scots, but the dissenting brethren were allowed to continue to state their case in hope that they could eventually be reconciled. It was hoped that by avoiding asserting that presbyterianism was established by divine right, the congregationalists could be accommodated.
However, on 21 February, it became clear just how fundamentally opposed the groups were when Philip Nye asserted that a presbytery set over local congregations would become as powerful as the state and was dangerous to the commonwealth, provoking vigorous opposition from presbyterians. The next day, the Assembly finally began to establish a prescription for presbyterian government. Owing to a strong belief in the unity of the church, the Assembly continued to try to find ways to reconcile the two parties throughout 1644, including the establishment of a special committee for that purpose in March. On 15 November, the dissenting brethren presented their reasons for disagreement with the rest of the Assembly to Parliament, and on 11 December the majority submitted a draft of a presbyterian form of government.
Conflicts with Parliament
Relations between the Assembly and Parliament were already deteriorating in 1644, when Parliament ignored the Assembly's request that "grosly ignorant and notoriously profane" individuals be barred from communion. While members of Parliament agreed that the sacrament should be kept pure, many of them disagreed with the presbyterian majority in the Assembly over who had the final power of excommunication, taking the Erastian view that it was the state. Also, by 1646, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had won the war on behalf of Parliament, and he, along with a majority of the army, was strongly in favor of religious toleration for all sorts of Christians even if the national church was to be presbyterian. His rise to power as a result of his military victories made the idea of a strictly presbyterian settlement without freedom of worship for others very unlikely. Parliament at least wanted to know which sins in particular were grave enough to trigger excommunication, but the Assembly was reticent to provide such information, as the majority considered the power of the church in this area to be absolute.
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In May 1645, Parliament passed an ordinance allowing excommunicants to appeal the church's sentence to Parliament. Another ordinance on 20 October contained a list of sins to which the church would be limited in its power to excommunicate. The Assembly considered drawing up another petition to Parliament until the Commons withdrew the ordinance and requested additional input from the Assembly. However, on 16 March 1646 Parliament proposed an even more Erastian settlement. The Assembly published a protest, provoking the Commons to charge them with breach of privilege and to submit to the divines nine questions on the matter, for which votes were to be included with the answers, an attempt to force the divines associated with the petition to reveal themselves.
The Nine Queries, as they came to be called, focused on the divine right (jure divino) of church government. While the presbyterian divines were capable of defending their vision for church government as established by divine right in the Bible, they were unwilling to answer the queries because doing so would further expose the disunity of the Assembly and weaken their case in Parliament. In July 1647, the New Model Army invaded London and conservative members of Parliament were forced out, leading to an ordinance establishing religious tolerance and ensuring that the Assembly's vision of a national, compulsory presbyterian church would never come to fruition. In London, where support for presbyterianism was greatest, presbyteries were established in only sixty-four of 108 city parishes, and regional presbyterian classes were only formed in fourteen of England's forty counties. A planned national general assembly never met. Many presbyterians did, however, establish voluntary presbyteries in what was a de facto free church situation until the Restoration in 1660, when a compulsory episcopal system was reinstated.
The new Form of Government was much more acceptable to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and they passed it on 10 February 1645 contingent on some particularities of presbyterian government which were expected to be worked out in a forthcoming Directory for Church Government, at the same time announcing their desire to formally unite the two churches. Following the rise of Cromwell and the secret Engagement of some Scots with Charles, however, this hope was abandoned, and the documents were never formally adopted. The General Assembly ceased to function under Cromwell and the kings who succeeded him from 1649 to 1690.
Confession, catechisms, and the Directory for Worship
During and after the debates over church government, the Assembly framed other documents which did not cause open rifts. The Directory for Public Worship, which was to replace the Book of Common Prayer, was swiftly written in 1644 and passed by Parliament on 3 January 1645. The Directory, accepted by the Scots as well, took a middle course between the presbyterians, who preferred a fixed liturgy, and congregationalists, who favored extemporaneous prayer. It consisted of an order for services with sample prayers. A psalter, translated by Francis Rous, was recommended for use in worship. A Confession of Faith to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles was begun in August 1646. While there is little record of the actions of the Assembly during the writing of the Confession, it is clear that there were significant debates in the Assembly over almost every doctrine found in it. The Confession was printed and sent to Parliament in December. The House of Commons requested scripture citations be added to the Confession, which were provided in April 1648. Parliament approved the Confession with revisions to the chapters on church censures, synods and councils, and marriage on 20 June 1648. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had already adopted the Confession without revision in 1647.
The Assembly had already done significant work on a catechism between December 1643 and January 1647 containing fifty-five questions, before it decided to create two catechisms rather than one. The Larger Catechism, intended to assist ministers in teaching the Reformed faith to their congregations, was sent to Parliament on 22 October 1647 and the Shorter Catechism, which was based on the Larger Catechism but intended for use in teaching the faith to children, on 25 November. Parliament demanded scripture proofs for the catechisms as well, which were presented in April. The House of Commons approved both catechisms, but the Lords only approved the Shorter Catechism. The Scots General Assembly approved both catechisms in 1648.
The Assembly understood its mandate under the Solemn League and Covenant to have been fulfilled on 14 April 1648 when it delivered the scripture citations to Parliament, and the Scottish Commissioners had already left by the end of 1647. The Assembly continued to meet primarily for the purpose of examination of ministers for ordination. Most of the divines, unhappy with the new regime under Cromwell, stopped attending rather than agree to an oath of Engagement to the Commonwealth on 11 October 1649. Newspapers continued to report on the meetings of the Assembly as late as March 1653. The Assembly must have stopped meeting sometime between then and Cromwell's dissolution of the Long Parliament in 1660.
The Assembly was a product of the British Reformed tradition, taking as a major source the Thirty-Nine Articles as well as the theology of James Ussher and his Irish Articles of 1615. The divines also considered themselves to be within the broader European Reformed tradition, were in frequent correspondence with continental Reformed theologians, and sought their approval. They also drew upon the pre-Reformation British theological tradition, which emphasized biblical knowledge and was influenced by Augustinianism channeled by Anselm, Thomas Bradwardine, and John Wycliffe. The recorded debates of the Assembly are full of citations of church fathers and medieval scholastic theologians.
The Confession and Larger Catechism start with the doctrine of Holy Scripture, because for Reformed Christians the Bible is the way in which people attain knowledge about God. The doctrine of Scripture was also a particularly important area of debate at the time, since some scholars had argued that the vowel points of the Old Testament were probably not part of the original. This caused significant debate between Reformed polemicists and Roman Catholics, who argued that such a discovery demonstrated the need for an authoritative magisterium to interpret the Bible. English Reformed writers in particular took up the work of defending the Reformed doctrine of the authority of Scripture against these polemics. The divines had a strong view of the inspiration of the Bible, and believed that God revealed himself in the propositions found in Scripture. While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God, while often acknowledging that the text was at the same time written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.
Puritans believed that God is sovereign over all of history and nature and that none of what were called his decrees would be frustrated. There was significant debate in the Assembly over the relationship of God's decree of predestination to the redemption purchased by Christ's death. Many of the Reformed during this period taught that Christ only died for those whom the Father had already predestined to salvation in eternity, a doctrine called particular redemption. A vocal minority of the divines of the Assembly, however, argued for a position known as hypothetical universalism. Edmund Calamy held such a view, and he argued that Christ's death, in addition to saving the elect, offered salvation to all men on condition that they believe. The Assembly's Confession did not teach such a view, and its language is much more amenable to a particular redemption interpretation, but there is a general agreement among scholars that the Confession's language allows an hypothetical universalist interpretation, though some disagree.[c]
Covenant theology is an interpretive framework used by Reformed theologians which was significantly developed during the seventeenth century. Under this scheme, as articulated by the Assembly, God's dealings with men are described in terms of two covenants: the covenant of works and covenant of grace. The Westminster Confession was the first major Reformed symbol to explicitly mention the covenant of works (sometimes called the covenant of life), in which God offered Adam eternal life on condition of perfect obedience. After Adam broke the first covenant in the fall, God offered salvation apart from human initiative in what was called the covenant of grace, which was a much more common feature of orthodox Reformed theology. The Westminster divines set these two covenant against each other rather than the Old and New Testaments, which they taught differed only in administration rather than in substance.
The Civil War brought with it the end of the consensus that there should be a single church imposed by the state, though there was still not complete freedom of religion. The ideals of the dissenting brethren of the Assembly were significant in the rise denominationalism, the doctrine that the church is found in several institutions rather than a single one in a given location. Though Protestants already commonly recognized the validity of churches in different territories, the outcome of the Assembly's debates marks the wider acceptance of the idea that several true churches may be found in the same territory.
The work of the Westminster Assembly was repudiated by the Church of England during the Restoration in 1660, but the confessional documents were adopted with amendments by Congregationalists in England and New England in the form of the 1658 Savoy Declaration, as well as Particular Baptists in the form of the 1689 Baptist Confession. When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was reestablished in 1690 following the Glorious Revolution, it ratified the Westminster Confession, but not any other document produced at Westminster. Dissenting Scottish Presbyterian churches, as well as Presbyterian churches in other countries, officially adopted the Confession as well as several other of the Assembly documents. Memorization of the Shorter Catechism has been made a requirement for children in many Presbyterian churches. The missionary efforts of each of these groups lead to the widespread significance of the Westminster Assembly throughout the English-speaking world.
- The version of the ordinance in the Journal of the House of Lords (probably least reliable) has 119 ministers, the engrossed ordinance has 121, and early printed copies have 120. Josias Shute was included in early copies until the Lords realized he was recently deceased and replaced him with Simeon Ashe.
- Parliament chose this term because it was that of the leader of Convocation, the assembly of English bishops, rather than "moderator", the term used by the Scots for the leader of their General Assembly.
- Lee Gatiss cites Richard Muller as holding that the Confession intentionally allows for hypothetical universalist views. Jonathan Moore believes the Confession's language can be easily adopted by an hypothetical universalist, and points out that it could have been easily written to be much more clearly exclusive of such a view. Robert Letham believes that the Confession at least intends to exclude hypothetical universalism, though he points out that hypothetical universalist divines were not excluded from the Assembly. A. Craig Troxel writes that the Confession excludes Amyraldism, but does not discuss the other, more moderate forms of hypothetical universalism presented at Westminster.
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- Van Dixhoorn 2012, pp. 23, 170, 175.
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- Paul 1985, p. 276; de Witt 1969, p. 115.
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- Kelly 1994, pp. 110–111.
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- de Witt 1969, p. 239.
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- Muller 2003a, p. 152; Letham 2009, pp. 121–122.
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- Letham 2009, p. 176.
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- Benedict, Philip (2002). Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300105070.
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- The Westminster Assembly Project
- The 1646 Westminster Confession
- Westminster Assembly and Related Documents
- Documents by the Westminster Assembly at Post-Reformation Digital Library