The "Larger" and the "Shorter" of It: An Anniversary for the Westminster Catechisms

September 15, 1648

The Larger and the Shorter Catechisms — both prepared by the Westminster Assembly the previous year — were approved by the British Parliament. These two documents have been in regular use among various Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists ever since.

The following series of posts will be from,

“The Origins and Formation
of the Westminster Confession of Faith”
as published in,

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States:
Containing the Confession of Faith,
the Larger and Shorter Catechisms,
as ratified by the General Assembly, at Augusta, Georgia, Dec. 1861,
with revised proof texts adopeted by the General Assembly of 1910.

Together with The Book of Church Order,
adopted by the General Assemblies of 1876-9 and 1893;
with amendments embodied up to and including the year 1910.

The Directory for the Worship of God, with Optional Forms, adopted 1894.

Rules of Parliamentary Order, adopted 1866.

I love those long titles!

My mother found this small tome at an estate sale a couple of years ago! (Yippie! I’m an old bibliophile!!!) Thanks to for all of the illustrations in this post.

“The Tendency Toward Thorough-Going Reform”:
Calvin and Luther through the work of the Puritans

As early as 1540, two great types of the reform of religion in northern Europe had made themselves manifest. Luther had moulded the one type. Calvin had moulded, or begun the moulding of, the other.

Luther was for retaining of Mediaeval doctrine, government, worship, many things — whatever seemed to him desirable and not forbiddn in the Word of God. Calvin was for bringing the Church into conformity with the pattern shown in the Word. He would have the Church hold the faith taught in the Word, govern itself according to the principles taught in the Word, and conduct its exercises of worship according to maxims derivable from the Word. He believed in the sufficiency of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and would have had the Church conform in all respects to Scripture teaching.

Lutheranism was the great type of moderate reform in northern Europe. Calvinism was the great type of thorough-going reform. Owing to the peculiar genius of the German people and to peculiar favoring providences, Lutheranism prevailed widely throughout north Germany and Scandinavia, but not a few in these regions craved a more thorough-going reform. Owing to the peculiar genius of the French, the Duth and south Germans, and to favoring providences, Calvinism prevailed in France, the Netherlands and in certain south German States and cities; among these peoples, however, there were some who had a greater love for features of the Mediaeval Church and would have retained them.

There were, thus, on the Continent two great types of reform movement, the one dominant in the one quarter, and the other dominant in other quarters. At the same time, in the sphere within which moderate reform prevailed, there was more or less demand for thorough-going reform; and in the sphere within which thorough-going reform prevailed there was more or less desire for merely moderate reform.

In England also, two types of reform were clearly manifest from the early days of Queen Elizabeth, the one a moderate, the other a type tending to thorough-going reform, each type indigenous, but each type strengthened by influences from beyond the Channel. The development of these two types of ecclesiastical reform in England was mightily influenced by the action of the crown, the one type being swerved by attraction, the other stimulated by opposition.

In no other country did the throne influence the character of reform so greatly. This was owing to this fact, amongst other forces, that the head of the English State had been made the head of the English Church. Henry VIII had, for personal, and, in the main, base reasons, revolted from the Papal rule; and had secured at the hands of Parliament in 1534, the “Act of Supremacy,” which ordered that the King “shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme Head in earth of the Church of England, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the Imperial Crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof as all the honors, jurisdictions, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities to the said dignity belonging, with full power to visit, repress, redress, reform, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, comtempts and enormities, which by any manner of spiritual authority of jurisdiction might or may lawfully be reformed.”

While Henry vacillated somewhat in his attitude toward the reform movement, owing to political exigencies, and unwittingly furthered Protestantism at times, as in authorizing the publication of the Scriptures in the vernacular, he remained, at heart, a Romanist, in revolt against Papal rule, and was hostile to any representative of reform of either type who was bold enough steadily to maintain his convictions. During the reign of his son, Edward, moderate reform was favored.

During the reign of Mary, who succeeded Edward, every type of reform was bitterly and relentlessly persecuted, no less than two hundred and eighty persons were burned at the stake, and many hundreds of persons driven into exile. By the ruthlessness of her opposition Mary did much, however, to fertilize and stimulate the Protestant cause. She was succeeded, in 1558, by her half-sister, Elizabeth.

This last representative of the House of Tudor, though at heart holding a religion not very different from the Anglo-Catholicism of her father, so far as she had any religion, was forced by circumstances to favor Protestantism. Naturally, she favored moderate reform and fought thorough-going reform. This and her lust of power led her to resist constitutional changes that were proposed in the Church, jsut where she pleased. An aristocratic hierarchy, though with noble exceptions, naturally also, sided with her in repressing both the civil and religious liberties of the people.

With Elizabeth the Tudor dynasty became extinct. The Stuart dynasty succeeded to the throne in the person of James, VI of Scotland, I of England. Brought up under Presbyterian tutelage, but with the blood of tricksters in his veins, he knew and approved the better, but followed the worse way. The party of moderate reform was regarded by him as more in harmony with civil monarchy. Moreover, that party pleased him by approving his fatal theory of the divine right of kings, and by endless and unseemly flatteries.

His son Charles, who followed him on the throne, swung back toward Roman Catholicism–to Anglo-Catholicism. During these two Stuart reigns the party of moderate reform, enjoying the favor of the court, and tending toward Anglo-Catholicism, united with the court in a bitter effort at repression of the aprty of thorough-going reform. This persecution, together with the spread of Arminianism among the moderate reformers, stimulated into large vigor of life the party tending to thorough-going reform.

The party tending to thorough-going reform in England, finds its rootlets in the age of Bloody Mary, in Ridley, Hooper, Latimer and others, and in part of the work of Cranmer. It finds rootlets reaching further back–to Tyndale, who, prior to his death in 1536, had spread widely his translation of the New Testament in Scotland as well as in England.

Some of its rootlets reach even further back–to the followers of Wycliffe and to Wycliffe himself. But while thorough-going reform was thus indigenous to England, it received a mightly impulse from the Continent, and particularly from Geneva. Many of those driven from England by the Marian persecutions found a congenial exile at Geneva, and became apt and honest pupils of the great Calvin.

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign they returned thoroughly imbued with those views of Scripture truth, which he taught with a clarity and force elsewhere unparallelled. The Calvinistic Theology became the theology of the great men of the Anglican Church during the first forty years of Elizabeth’s reign. The most of these great men would willingly have tolerated a more thorough-going reform of the government and worship of the Church. Some of them positively and openly favored further reform in these departments. But Elizabeth stood in the way.

In 1563 the formularies of the Anglican Church were completed, containing Protestant doctrines along with a Mediaeval hierarchy and a partially Mediaeval cultus. In the following year the Queen began the attempt to enforce a rigid uniformity–an attempt resulting in the expulsion from the Established Church of many of the godliest ministers of all England.

Further trouble arose over the private meetings for worship in London at which Knox’s Book of Common Order was used instead of the Liturgy, and over the more public meetings known as prophesyings–gatherings of ministers and pious laymen for the study and exposition of the Scriptures–very important meetings, as proven in their use in Zurich, Geneva and Scotland. Elizabeth commanded their suppression.

Before Elizabeth had been on the throne a score of years a consideable number of advocates of thorough-going reform, “who had been led on to substantially Presbyterian opinions, but, discouraged by friends abroad, and debarred by the authorities at home from overtly seceding from the national Church, begand to hold private meetings for mutual conference and prayer, and possibly also for the exercise of discipline over those who voluntarily joined their associations and submitted to their guidance.

It is even said that a Presbytery was formed at Wandsworth in Surrey, wherein eleven lay elders were associated with the lecturer of that congregation and certain leading Puritan clergymen. But if this was really a formal presbytery, it is probable that it was what was then called the lesser presbytery or session, not the greater presbytery or classis to which the name is now restricted. It is more certain that when Cartwright, the redoubled leader of this school of Puritans, was arrested in 1585 and his study searched, a copy was found of a Directory of Church Government, which made provision for synods, provincial and national, as well as for presbyteries, greater and lesser.

This, according to some authorities, had been subscribed by about five hundred Puritans of this School, and for some years–had to a certain extent been carried out, and a church withing the chuch virtually formed.” (Mitchell: The Westminster Assembly, pp. 51 and 52). These and all other expressions of thorough-going reform Elizabeth did her utmost to stamp out, using the despotic Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission without regard to the feelings and convictions of many of the most patriotic, learned and Christian of her subjects, but with disastrous failure, as the result. Her tyrannical measures called out and developed love for the more biblical form of religion which she persecuted. They multiplied the advocates of thorough-going reform, or Puritans, as they came early to be called in England. Posted by Picasa


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