An Historical Introduction to the Presbyterian Church in America -PART II

The Westminster Confession of Faith: The Influence of the British Isles

While Calvin was writing his Institutes in mainland Europe, another John was busy working for reform in the British Isles. Amid the fluctuating interests and attempts at reformation in England, John Knox (1514-72) rose up in Scotland. The sixteenth century in England was full of political and religious change. Henry III declared himself the head of the church in 1534. He was followed by Edward VI and a brief period of Protestantism and reformation from 1547 to 1553. During Mary’s reign from 1553 to 1558 Catholicism again came to the forefront and Protestants were exiled and martyred. The remainder of the century was much more favorable for protestants under the reign of the Anglican Queen Elizabeth who reigned from 1558 to 1603. It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England that John Knox began working for a separate Scottish church or “kirk.” Knox’s most valuable contributions were his efforts for Presbyterian polity in the Scottish church and the formulation of Reformed liturgical forms namely, the Scots Confession and the First Book of Discipline.

Throughout the end of the Sixteenth century the Anglican Church developed a middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism under the reign of Elizabeth. Still, Reformed theology was present in the moderately Calvinistic Thirty-nine Articles which explained Anglican theology. There were still some Protestants, like John Knox, who longed for a more purely biblical church. Puritans such as William Tyndale, John Bradford, John Knox, John Hooper, Thomas Cartwright and others continued to push for even more reform. They stressed the need for purity in worship, biblical church polity, earnest preaching, and strict observance of the Sabbath, all of which remained of great significance throughout Presbyterian history. One of these would soon be the center of much debate in Scotland; biblical church polity.

The period 1638 to 1649 is often referred to as the Second Reformation in Scotland. While the first reformation had been against Catholicism the second reformation was against Prelacy; the Episcopalian form of church government. It was during this period that the Scots truly established Presbyterian Church government. Several documents led to this result. First, the National Covenant of 1638 signed by some 300,000 Scots stressed the need to remain committed to Reformed religion. Second, the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 stressed similar values but for political reasons was accepted by those in England as well as Scotland. This led to the need for further clarification and uniformity among the established churches in Scotland and England. In 1643 the Westminster Assembly began in order to establish uniformity regarding the form of church government, the directory of public worship, a confession of faith, and catechisms. The documents produced by the Westminster Assembly from 1643 until 1649 laid the foundation for Presbyterians in the British Isles and America for many years to come.