Review: A Short Introduction to the Westminster Assembly and its Work (Rowland S. Ward)

All Christians should learn about their historical roots. Not only can we be encouraged and instructed by fellow-believers of the past, but one of the best ways to learn about our church traditions and denominations is by looking at history.

Of course, we don’t have time to try to be experts on everything. Most Christians want brief and easy to understand explanations of their traditions. Rowland Ward’s recently published A Short Introduction to the Westminster Assembly and its Work (2019) is just that kind of book. It is an excellent, short introduction to the foundational assembly of the Presbyterian church and to the tumultuous period of seventeenth century England.

Why should you learn about the Westminster Assembly and the confession it wrote (Westminster Confession, 1647)? Because it is relevant to a range of Protestant denominations, not just Presbyterians. The Westminster assembly originally intended to produce a revision of the Anglican confession of faith, The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, 1571), but they eventually wrote this fresh confession instead. The Savoy Declaration (1658), the confession of the Congregational church, is simply the Westminster Confession with the sections on church governance changed. Similarly, the London Baptist Confession (1689), the confession of Reformed Baptist churches, is based on the Westminster Confession with the sections on baptism and church governance changed. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith is part of the identity of modern Presbyterians, Anglican, Congregationalists and Baptists. It is also extremely edifying, and a long-proven resource for growing in Christian maturity.

The book consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the background to the assembly in the English Civil War. Chapter 2 introduces the assembly’s Directory for Public Worship (1644/5), a valuable resource for conducting church in a way that offers more freedom than a fixed liturgy, but does better than leaving the minister to his own devices. This discussion will help readers think carefully through how they conduct church and how it might be improved. Chapter 3 focuses on the fraught issue of church governance, discussing Anglican rule by bishops (episcopacy), Presbyterian eldership, and Congregational independency, as well as what it means for clergy to subscribe to a doctrinal confession. Chapter 4 briefly describes the structure and character of the three ‘doctrinal items’ produced by the assembly: the Longer Catechism, Shorter Catechism, and the Confession itself. Chapter 5 offers brief commentary on the confession section-by-section. I can imagine this being of particular value to Presbyterian churches who are seeking to train congregation members in doctrine. An annotated bibliography directs interested readers to the many more extensive works available on the subject.

For length of treatment, this is probably the best book on the Westminster Assembly available today. It will lead most readers to consider aspects of church life and theology in ways that they hadn’t before. This itself is very valuable. One of the benefits of reading history is the way that it can help uncover our blind spots, and point to ways in which we can grow in Christian maturity individually and corporately.

This book comes from Tulip Publishing, a recently established Australian publishing company that aims to produce titles relating to Reformed theology and history. I look forward to seeing many other valuable new titles from them in coming years.