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Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble:

for the day of the LORD cometh, for it is nigh at hand, Joel 2:1.

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Thursday, 27 December 2012

Pre-millennialism & The Westminster Divines

This article has been updated slightly [Saturday 5th January 2013].
Mention has already been made on this Blog about Dr William Cunningham's* impression of the Pre-millennialist views of a number of the Westminster Divines.

Further evidence of the prevalence of Pre-millennialism among the Westminster Divines is to be found in the writings of Robert Baillie, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Assembly. Robert Baillie was the Principal of Glasgow University in his day.

In his writings, entitled 'The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie' he writes on his observations of the Assembly's proceedings.

In one of these letters, dated 5th September 1645 and addressed to Mr William Spang, a fellow Scottish minister, Baillie makes an extremely interesting statement about the views of the Westminster Divines with regard to the End Times. In modern English the quote reads:
Send me the rest of Forbes: I like the book very well, and the man much the better for the book's cause. I marvel I can find nothing in its index against the Millenaries: I cannot think the author a Millenarie. I cannot dream why he should have omitted an error so famous in antiquity, and so troublesome among us; for the most of the chief divines here, not only Independents, but others such as Twisse, Marshall, Palmer, and many more, are express Chiliasts. It's needful, if his judgment be right, that he should amend that omission, by an express and large Appendix, The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, vol 2:313.

The interesting points to come out of these comments in this letter are:

1. Robert Baillie describes a number of the Westminster divines as 'express Chiliasts'. He is not surmising that they have leaning towards this position or that he suspects them of holding views that resemble Chiliasm. He states that they are 'express Chiliasts'. He would not make such a statement if there were not good grounds for doing so. Robert Baillie is not a premillennialist himself. He is therefore not going to describes others as holding to this view if there is no warrant for doing so. He was after all present, as a Scottish commissioner, at the Westminster Assembly, so he, more than any, ought to know! His comments cannot be easily dismissed, as being from a pre-millennialist who is seeking support for their own position. These words written in a letter are a clear emphatic statement about the end time views of a number of the Westminster divines.

2. Robert Baillie states that 'most of the chief divines here…are express Chiliasts'. Not just some of the chief divines but 'most of the chief divines'. This is surely referring to those who took a leading part in that great gathering. Baillie is evidently writing during the time when the Assembly was sitting. This letter was written in 1645. This is a startling claim to make on his part. 

3. Robert Baillie names Dr William Twisse as a Pre-millennialist. Dr Twisse was the Prolocutor or Moderator of the Westminster Assembly, until his death shortly before the Assembly concluded its work. Dr Twisse's Premillennialist views were widely known. He was a close friend of Joseph Mede  and both believed in the future national conversion and restoration of Israel. Most biographical sketches of Dr Twisse's life mention this fact. See here.

4. Robert Baillie names two others, Marshall and Palmer, as Pre-millennialists. From the list of Westminster  Divines their full names are Stephen Marshall and Herbert Palmer. These two men played a considerable part in the work of the Westminster Assembly's. Stephen Marshall, in particular, was one of the leading compilers of The Directory of Public Worship, which many Presbyterians, who are not Pre-millennialists, lay great store by.

5. Robert Baillie, I think it is fair to say, regarded Pre-millennialism as the common view among the Independents. The sentence from his letter quoted above reads: for the most of the chief divines here, not only Independents, but others such as Twisse, Marshall, Palmer, and many more, are express ChiliastsHe includes the Independents as a group and takes it as a 'given' that they will expressly hold to this view. This was certainly true of the likes of Thomas Goodwin, who was chief among the Independents.

6. Robert Baillie speaks of 'many more', apart from the chief divines, the Independents, Twisse, Marshall and Palmer among the Westminster Divines, who were expressly of this same persuasion. There were 151 members of the Westminster Assembly. Baillie has mentioned two groups and three individuals by name. He also speaks of these others, the 'many more', who are 'express Chiliasts'. Pre-millennialist views can never therefore be described as not being represented among the Westminster divines or that they were just an insignificant minority among the Westminster divines. Not upon reading with any honesty or integrity these words written by Robert Baillie.

Surely it is then foolish in light of these facts to argue that the Westminster Confession of Faith in any way takes a position against Pre-millennialism. If it did so how could these men ever have agreed to it?

*The story is told of a minister who sought to engage his esteemed colleague Dr William Cunningham [1805-1861] in conversation about the Premillennial return of Christ to this earth. Seeking to obtain from Dr Cunningham a verdict on what he thought of these end time views he received an interesting reply. Dr Cunningham said that:
He saw nothing to alarm or repel in views which were entertained by some of the soundest among the Westminster divines, but that, for himself, he had not as yet had leisure to look into the matter.

The account of this incident with Dr Cunningham is to be found in the biographical preface, page xxiii, of a re-printed volume of his sermons entitled: Sermons from 1820-1860, first published in 1871 and re-published by Still Waters Revival Books in 1991.


Anonymous said...

An excellent article. It sets the record straight about the views held by many of the Westminster Divines on the Second Coming of Christ; and answers irrefutably the notion that the Westminster Confession was written only by those who held to the Amillennial position. It is vital that this article receives as wide a circulation as possible among Evangelical Christians.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the above, the myth has been imploded there is some element of dishonesty in those that claim it is more "Protestant" To be be A-Mill.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rev McClung

Interesting article. Shows perhaps the differing views betweens the divines, a trend which continues on today between Christians.

I was wondering do you think the divine's were as divided on baptism? From reading the Confession I think they appear to be whole-heartedly infant.

However the Church of Christ at large today seems to have rejected the Westminster standards in favour of believers baptism. Why is this?

Rev Brian McClung said...


Yes there were differing views about a number of things among the Westminster Divines, including eschatology, exclusive Psalm singing and Baptism, to name a few obvious ones.

You are correct in believing that they believed in infant baptism.

That is why from the commencement of the FPC we have a separate article in our Articles of Faith setting out a different position on the mode and subject of Baptism to the Westminster Confession:
'The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, under Christ the Great King and Head of the Church, Realizing that bitter controversy raging around the mode and proper subjects of the ordinance of Christian baptism has divided the Body of Christ when that Body should have been united in Christian love and Holy Ghost power to stem the onslaughts and hell-inspired assaults of modernism, hereby affirms that each member of the Free Presbyterian Church shall have liberty to decide for himself which course to adopt on these controverted issues, each member giving due honor in love to the views held by differing brethren, but none espousing the error of baptismal regeneration.'

The reason for this is complex. It is partly due to where the Reformers had come from, ie out of Rome.

PS Can you please give us your name to continue the conversation!

Brian McClung