The Importance of Being Written: Scribes at the Westminster Assembly

Zachary Purvis
Thursday, September 1st 2022
Sep/Oct 2022

Specters haunt the history of church committees. Today’s disciplined clerks, as we know them, harken back to yesterday’s unseen scribes. Every reader of ecclesiastical documents and every lover of polity, decency, and good order remains in their debt. For without them, there would be no surviving record of church business.

No committee—therefore no associated team of clerks or scribes—is more important for post-Reformation theology, piety, and practice in the English-speaking world than the Westminster Assembly, which met from July 1643 to April 1653. True, the assembly was not a church committee, but a political one. In the midst of an English civil war that was part of a wider war of the three kingdoms—England, Scotland, and Ireland, all ruled by Charles I—England’s Long Parliament set up in London an advisory body of ministers, divines, to reform the church. The advisory body had to admit members of Parliament (MPs) from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to sit in on plenary sessions. But Protestants remember the assembly primarily for the documents it produced known as the Westminster Standards: the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, the Larger Catechism, and the Directory for Public Worship. Indeed, Presbyterians the world over still receive and subscribe (write their name beneath, both literally and figuratively) to these confessional and catechetical statements as legal and constitutional, as constitutive of the public official teaching and governing of the church.

By the end of the assembly’s first day on July 1, 1643, the need to record carefully all that would be said and done was obvious. On the second day, Parliament appointed two scribes “to set down all proceedings”: Adoniram Byfield and Henry Robrough.[1] Though divines themselves and indispensable pieces of the Westminster puzzle, these two men were not, properly speaking, voting members. This fact was made all too clear to them in the debate as to whether they should be permitted to sit with their hats on in the assembly, as did other members. To forbid scribes to wear hats would make them easily identifiable but would also be insulting to them. More important, hats would help keep them warm—and comfortable, behatted scribes might take better notes.[2]

Take notes they did. There are rough minutes of assembly proceedings in early modern shorthand, revised minutes in a more polished hand, and registers of votes and decisions—550,000 words in all. More than one historian has sighed in agony over Byfield’s penmanship: “hurried and abbreviated in style”; “an execrable seventeenth-century hand in extraordinary abstruseness and complexity”; a rough scrawl made worse by incomplete sentences, erasures, and insertions.[3] Occasionally, Byfield’s personality peeks out from the textual mass, but it is difficult to observe and fleeting—like sunshine against the London fog. When Anthony Tuckney, master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, complained that Parliament could be as harsh in rule as the king had been, Byfield put down his pen but indicated that the speech continued—the rest was better left unrecorded.[4] He found a speech on Matthew 18 by Philip Nye, the leading Congregationalist at the assembly and one of its most called-to-order speakers, to be “little to the purpose.”[5] He amused himself by writing the name of Paul Best, who was jailed for denying the Trinity at the Gatehouse Prison in front of Westminster Abbey’s Great West Door, as “Paul Beast.”[6] Nevertheless, Byfield and his coworkers are mostly invisible in the documentary evidence; they are record-keepers, not record-makers.

Of course, these scribes were not the only divines to jot down what happened inside Westminster Abbey and its famed Jerusalem Chamber, where committee work took place. The churchman John Lightfoot, one of England’s learned Talmudic scholars alongside John Selden, who was also at the assembly, kept an elegant journal into which he entered summaries of the assembly’s opening months.[7] Robert Baillie ignored rules about confidentiality by sending dispatches of assembly proceedings across Scotland and Europe.[8] George Gillespie also took copious notes, sometimes relocating the order of speeches in his narrative, and he seems to have enjoyed doing so, writing home to Scotland to say that London was the best place on earth.[9]

The minutes produced by the scribes offer a fuller, stranger, more remarkable account: snapshots of impassioned debates, piercing examinations, heartfelt resolutions—hours of nettlesome discussion over many days are often condensed into a few fragmentary lines. The pace of the assembly, and the toil of the scribes, was exhausting. Stephen Marshall, the most frequent preacher before Parliament and the most frequent speaker at the assembly, commented: “All our discourses are recorded by the scribes so far as their pens can reach them.”[10] Rarely, the scribes miscounted the vote; when they did, it caused, in Lightfoot’s words, “a great deal of heat.”[11] Twice Cornelius Burges, one of the most important members of the assembly, required the scribes to “improve” his sensitive speeches.[12] For their immense labors, the scribes received the same pay as the other divines, although sometimes they were able to supplement their meager stipends. In 1645, for example, when the Directory for Public Worship went to print, under Byfield’s supervision, the proceeds were split equally among the scribes and the two parliamentary houses.[13]

These minutes provide more than mere antiquarian interest. Not only do they reveal how the assembly worked, but also—and most importantly for the church, then as now—they illuminate what the divines meant when discussing points of profound doctrinal import: the obedience of Christ, the eternal decree, the nature of Christian liberty and liberty of conscience, among others. John Bower’s verdict is apt:

It is chiefly through the assembly’s minutes and papers, aided by other sources such as Parliament’s journals and a steady stream of contemporary published works, where the assembly’s day-to-day work to create order amid civil war and ecclesiastical chaos is to be found. It is here where the history of the confession’s text unfolds.[14]

In antiquity, unheralded scribes copied out the Scriptures; from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, long-forgotten copyists made possible great books by scholars that are still read today. Likewise, the scribes at the Westminster Assembly left behind a long and winding trail of paper, as challenging as it is rewarding to follow. We have an ideal guide to their world: the sublime five-volume edition of the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (MPWA) by Chad Van Dixhoorn.[15] When we read through it, we can become better readers of the church’s confession. For that reason, we might even fill our ministers’ libraries with the MPWA, to make available scholarly tools for pastoral reflection and study—a motion, perhaps, for the next committee.

Zachary Purvis (DPhil, University of Oxford) is lecturer of church history at Edinburgh Theological Seminary.

1. John Lightfoot, Journal of the Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines, ed. John Rogers Pitman (London: J. F. Dove, 1824), 3–4.
2. The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643–1652, ed. Chad Van Dixhoorn, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2:281 (Nov. 7, 1643; Session 90) (hereafter MPWA).
3. C. A. Briggs, “The Documentary History of the Westminster Assembly,” The Presbyterian Review 1 (1880): 130; Robert S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord: Politics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly and the “Grand Debate” (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1985), 73.
4. MPWA 2:287 (Sept. 9, 1644; Session 281).
5. MPWA 2:351 (Oct. 1, 1644; Session 294).
6. MPWA 2:642 (Aug. 5, 1645; Session 480); 2:663 (Sept. 11, 1645; Session 501); 2:665 (Sept. 15, 1645; Session 503).
7. Lightfoot, Journal; MPWA 1:61.
8. Robert Baillie, The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, ed. David Laing, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle, 1841), 108; Chad Van Dixhoorn, “Scottish Influence on the Westminster Assembly: A Study of the League’s Summoning Ordinance and the Solemn League and Covenant,” Scottish Church History 37 (2007): 58.
9. George Gillespie to Robert Murray, May 21, 1645, in Baillie, Letters, 507.
10. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord, 562 (spelling modernized).
11. MPWA 1:57 (spelling modernized).
12. MPWA 2:80 (Sept. 8, 1643; Session 49); 2:128 (Sept. 15, 1643; Session 56).
13. Journals of the House of Commons 4:10–11 (Jan. 4, 1645).
14. John R. Bower, The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), 51.
15. See note 2.
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Zachary Purvis
Zachary Purvis (MAHT, Westminster Seminary California; DPhil, University of Oxford) teaches church history and theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary.
Thursday, September 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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