The historic doctrinal "standard" for English-speaking presbyterianism was the product of the Westminster Assembly (so named from its sessions in the abbey precincts) that was convoked by the Long Parliament in June 1643 to reform the Church of England. The dominant Puritan party intended at first simply to revise the thirty-nine articles, the basic formulary of the Elizabethan Establishment, along the lines of the Lambeth Articles of 1595 and the Irish Articles of 1615. When, however, the Solemn League and Covenant with Scotland was enacted in September 1643, Parliament ordered a new Confession of Faith for all three kingdoms of the British Isles, "according to the Word of God and the example of the best reformed churches." Working simultaneously on a Directory of Public Worship (to replace the book of common prayer) and two Catechisms, the Assembly submitted the Confession to Parliament in December 1646; it was published the next year. With some revisions it became the official formulary for England until the Restoration, while for Scotland and Ulster it became the subordinate standard that it has ever since remained. Even outside the direct Presbyterian tradition, its influence on later Congregationalist and Baptist confessions has been considerable.
In 33 chapters the Westminster Confession presents a comprehensive yet compact outline of the Calvinist faith. The characteristic doctrines of divine sovereignty and predestination and of human depravity and covenant are enunciated in a stately prose reminiscent of the Authorized Version of the Bible. Appealing always to a scriptural warrant, the Confession manifests a reserve regarding such problems in Puritan polemic as the freedom of the will and the visibility of the church, which sets it apart from most 16th-and 17th-century formularies and commends it to the appreciation of less fervid subsequent times.
Although the Confession has been amended by both of the leading Presbyterian bodies in the United States—by the addition, in 1903 and 1942, of two chapters (on the Holy Spirit and on the Gospel) and by the substitution, in 1959, of one (on Marriage)—it has been increasingly criticized for its excessively juridical and individualistic emphasis. The adoption of a new formulary, "The Confession of 1967," and the subsequent issuance of a Book of Confessions comprised of all the major Reformed statements of faith have challenged the Westminster Confession's pre-eminence within the denomination. It is doubtful, though, that any other confession will ever assume the venerable prestige of the Westminster as the dominant statement of Reformed faith.
See Also: confessions of faith, 2: protestant.
Bibliography: s. w. carruthers, The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly (London 1943); The Westminster Confession of Faith (Manchester 1937). g. s. hendry, The Westminster Confession for Today (Richmond, VA 1960). e. w. smith, The Creed of Presbyterians (rev. ed. Richmond 1941). Book of Confessions (Knoxvile, TN 2000).
[r. i. bradley/