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Confession and Subscription

By Rev. Edward Andrews, BA, MA, BD

This is not an attempt at a theological review of the Westminster Confession. It is merely an attempt to explain to genealogists, and people who are interested in the culture of a significant part of the Ulster heritage how we got the Confession and how people “believed it,” i.e. subscribed to it. Genealogists often need to differentiate between Christian denominations in their search for records. Those who are interested in Ulster Heritage or culture may find it useful to understand a document, which has profoundly shaped the history of the community.

Most Christian traditions use the word “Confession”. Many will be familiar with the “Confession of St. Patrick.” One of the great Christian classics of Western Christendom is the “Confessions of St. Augustine.” All Christians are linked with the concept of confessing our sins, and while the exact mechanism may sometimes differ, it is a word with which we are familiar. Those who belong to a liturgical tradition will be used to the idea of confessing our faith, when the Community of the faithful join in reciting one of the historical Creeds of the Church.

The word “Confession” in this article means a structured statement of the faith and doctrine of a particular faith community. At the Reformation as it became clear that the original Church was going to resist attempts to reform her, it was necessary for the faith communities, which arose from the teaching of the Reformation to express their beliefs. One of the things which is well worth doing at this stage is to seek to understand what the role of a confession is.

Clearly the original use of a confession was a statement of the faith of the Community. “The public and avowed Confession of this Church …” This is an extremely important task. The question always has to be asked “How long can the Confession genuinely carry out this task?” While the faith is a constant thing – the deposit of the Faith, the detail of the faith is capable of constant revision. Churches get round this fact by stating that the Confession is founded upon and agreeable to the World of God, as it is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. In any place where the Confession does not accurately reflect the Word of God it should be reformed. In the Scots Confession of 1560 this is expressly stated. “If any man will note in this our confession any article or sentence repugning to God's holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity's sake, to admonish us of the same in writing; and we, of our honour and fidelity, do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from his holy scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.”  It is very convenient for the Church to have a reasonably succinct statement of what it believes. Sometimes, as with the Westminster documents there are catechisms, which the faithful or their children can learn so that they too know what the official doctrine of the Church is.

The second reason for a confession is to provide a bond of those who are part of the community of faith. In October 1690 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordained that, “For retaining soundness and unity of doctrine, it is judged necessary that (All office bearers) be obliged to subscribe their approbation of the Confession of Faith.” Thus it is that historically those who have held office within the reformed community have been required subscribe in some way to the Confession.

Conversely, Confessions could be used to exclude people either from the faith community, or for the exercise of political power. Subscription to the Confession was clearly used as a means of attacking Episcopalian Jacobites and excluding them from the body politick in response to the actions of the English Tories in the latter years of Queen Anne’s reign.

I introduce the Scots Confession 1560, as it is important that while the Westminster Confession, about which we hear so much was merely the last (and some would claim least successful) Reformed Confession. Scotland had three confessions before Westminster; Patrick Hamilton’s Lutheran Patrick’s Places, the First Helvetic Confession, translated about 1540 into Scots/English by Wishart, it defined Reformed Church membership in Scotland prior to 1560 and the Scots Confession of 1560, prepared by the six Johns in four days when Parliament demanded a statement of the Reformed Faith which should be established in Scotland.

 It is important that we also realise that England has its own rich heritage of confessional documents. These were called Articles, and began in 1536 and 1538 reflecting the Reformation as run by Henry VIII. These are basically Lutheran documents and are drawn from the Augsburg Confession. The Forty-two Articles of Edward VI were much more Calvinistic while a compromise between Lutheranism and Calvinism is reflected by the Thirty-nine, which, except for the brief period when they flirted with the Westminster Confession, has remained dominant in the life of the Anglican Communion and as it has spread world wide, so have the articles.

We must not forget Archbishop Ussher’s Irish Articles of 1615. These were fairly strongly Calvinistic in tone and were important not only in setting the form of the Westminster Confession, but also some if its content. Ussher, by now living in England, was nominated as a member of the Westminster Assembly but declined to attend out of loyalty to Charles I.

In my previous article in this series I sketched the events in the United Kingdom, which led to the Westminster Assembly. For those to seek to understand British history during the 17th Century it is essential to remember that no matter what tensions there may have been in England between the Monarchy and the rest of the population, the proximate cause of the conflagration which was to break out in the United Kingdom and see a king lose his head were events in Scotland, and these events in Scotland if not totally tied into religious affairs were substantially influenced by them.

 It has to be remembered that until 1603 Scotland and England were independent countries, sometimes at war, always living with considerable mistrust. Scotland had a treaty of alliance with France. France was England’s traditional enemy. It was only because Elizabeth died unmarried and without children that her great nephew inherited the throne of England. James had had a difficult life. His Mother had abdicated under pressure, and he had become King at a young age. Intellectually brilliant his education had been demanding in the extreme and it is easy to suspect that he had no intention of ever being pushed around again. He had an ambition to see a politically united Great Britain. Such was beyond even his statecraft.

James’s son Charles lacked the statecraft of his father and managed to alienate just about everyone hoe could. This is not a history of the Bishop’s Wars, the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Confederate War, the English Civil War, or even the War of the Three Kingdoms which is the best title for a series of interlocking wars which took place in Great Britain and Ireland between 1638 and effectively 1652/1653.

Scottish patience with Charles I ran out in 1637. While the immediate cause was religious, there were other problems with how Charles was seeking to rule Scotland concerning taxation. There was however a religious document drawn up and signed widely by the people of Scotland except in the North West and parts of the North East. This National Covenant is one of the seminal documents in Scottish History. It was the signing of the Covenant, which marked the formal beginning of the national rejection of Charles’ Church policy. A war between Scotland and England ensued, and it was the need to raise taxes for this, which made Charles end his personal rule and call parliaments. The Parliaments ultimately saw the execution of Charles’ chief advisors. However there was a complication, in 1641 the Irish revolted. Nominally as a Royalist but effectively as an anti settler revolt, the 1641 rebellion had caused massacres of the Plantation Settlers, and was seen as an Irish Catholic rising.

It was in 1643 that the English Parliamentary leaders, thinking in terms of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, sought the support of the Scots. This support was not only against the Royalists who were doing quite well in the Civil War, but also aware that the Scots were concerned about the possibility of Irish involvement in the affairs of Scotland after Irish rebellion, was against the Irish. The Scottish Government had dispatched a Scottish Army to support the Scottish settlers (which also saw the first Presbytery meeting in Ireland). While the English basically wanted a military alliance, the price, which the Scots wanted, was that Presbyterianism should become the established religion, this of course was unrealistic. Even within the parliamentary party there was a wide range of theological views from moderate Anglicanism through to Congregationalists. Any common understanding of the subtleties of the Reformed Faith was going to be unlikely.

Ultimately, as well as producing the Westminster documents, the best known of which were the Confession and the two Catechisms, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, but also included the Directory of Public Worship, the Form of Church Government and the Directory for Family Worship, the Assembly continued to sit and exercise a supervisory role for the English Church until 1653 when at the time of the expulsion of the Rump the Westminster Assembly faded away.

The Westminster Documents lost their place in the United Kingdom at the Restoration and never regained it in either England or Ireland. In Scotland things were different and the Confession was adopted at the restoration of Presbyterianism, which accompanied the “Glorious Restoration”. The development of subscription to the Confession which was used as a weapon of policy against the Episcopalians meant that once the threat of the Episcopalians and the English Tories had receded into the background, the internal contradictions within the Confession, especially with Church State relationships and the question of the relationship of the elect with sin periodically became important issues in the life of not just the Kirk, but also the whole civil community. 

Because of the relationship between the Church of Scotland as established in 1689 and the state the Church of Scotland was unable to change its relationship with the Confession without the approval of the Westminster Parliament. (there was quite recently a debate whether the Kirk is tied into the Confession or whether it could have other subordinate standards). Undoubtedly the position of the Confession and the relationship with the state were important in the subsequent breakaways initially from the Kirk and then internal splits within the body, which had split off. These various movements produced new shoots of growth which were then transported away from Scotland and which became bedded in Ireland where they prospered even though the original reason for the birth of the movement was no longer politically relevant.

The life of the Scottish Covenanters and Secessionists was moulded by their dissatisfaction with the post-1688 political and ecclesiastical settlement.  This way of life was formed in Scotland but ultimately thrived in Ireland in the belief and practice of the Presbyterians there.

© Edward Andrews 2009

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Bio - Rev. Edward Andrews

Rev. Edward AndrewsEdward Andrews was born in Northern Ireland and educated at Belfast Royal Academy, Magee University College, Trinity College Dublin (BA, MA). He worked in the public service in Northern Ireland and in Scotland before he studied at the University of Edinburgh (BD). He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of Scotland. After pastorates in the Argyll, the Lothians and Ayrshire he retired to East Lothian. His interests are history and sociology of religion.


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