On The Hermeneutics of Subscription - Part 2

This article is a continuation of "On the Hermeneutics of Subscription."


A moderately successful experiment in “presbyterianizing” was carried out in Northampton in 1571, with “prophesyings” (exposition of Scripture apart from liturgy) following from the precedent of 1 Corinthians 14.[1]  In Northampton, seven regulations were adopted, the first of which was: “That every minister, at his first allowance to be of this Exercise, shall by subscription declare his consent in Christ’s true religion, with his Brethren, and submit to the discipline and order of the same.”[2]  Further, a Bill on May 29, 1571 allowed Presbyterian ordination as long as the Ordinand was supportive of the Thirty-Nine Articles.[3]  Hence, it appears that the earliest practice of subscription in England was to the Thirty-Nine Articles.  Furthermore, Thomas M’Crie asserts that, at the organization of the Presbytery of Wandsworth (Nov. 20, 1572), “it is certain that some general outline of discipline was drawn up, and privately subscribed by the members, in pledge of mutual agreement.”[4]  What exactly was subscribed to, M’Crie is not sure,in that those original minutes are not available.  However, he speculates that, “The Discipline had been subscribed to in various parts of England.”[5]  Daniel Neal also supports this,[6] and even Charles Briggs includes the subscription formula in his reprinting of Cartwright’s Book of Discipline, to wit: “The Brethren of the conference of N. whose names are here under written have subscribed this discipline after this manner . . .”[7]

The next instance of subscription was one that was used against the incipient Puritan movement.  Its negative impact continued to shape the views of British Presbyterians for some time, frequently inciting violent reactions to subscriptions of any sort, due to this tyranny.  In 1583, as Archbishop Whitgift began to retaliate against the proto-presbyterians, his first step was to issue, “a paper of fifteen requisitions which all the clergy were at once to subscribe, on pain of deprivation. . . . The Sixth of these provisions was the hardest and most notorious, containing as it did the new subscription test, and requiring that none be permitted to preach, read, catechize, minister the Sacraments, or execute any ecclesiastical function, by what authority soever he be admitted thereunto, unless he first consent and subscribe to these Articles following . . .”[8]  Whitgift required subscription to the Prayer Book, “and those subscribing bound themselves to use these forms and none other.”[9]  That these were indeed enforced can be seen in that shortly thereafter, Humphrey Fenn and others were suspended from ministry for refusing to subscribe.[10]  John Udall, the first Presbyterian martyr of the Star Commission, had “subscribed The Book of Discipline” in 1592, thereafter becoming a marked man.[11]  Following the first blush of subscription in Northampton by the British Presbyterians, immediately thereafter, subscription became associated with ecclesiological tyranny.  So bitter was this experience with subscription, as it was abused at the hands of Whitgift and the persecuting Anglicans, that it would be a wonder if such practice was ever revived by British Presbyterians.[12]  Yet, later it was.

In any event, an early history and meaning for the term subscription was found on British soil.[13]  Early in the eighteenth century, the matter of subscription would resurface,nearly a decade prior to the Adopting Act.  By the year 1717 at least five Presbyterian congregations were meeting together at Exeter.  A controversy arose over the orthodoxy of James Peirce who had been accused of Arianism.  When the committee from this Presbytery met (also to consider the orthodoxy of Joseph Hallett and others),[14] Peirce strenuously denied any deviation, and responded in 1719 with a vigorous pamphlet, “The Western Inquisition.”

In May of 1719, this matter was then brought before the Exeter Assembly, a synod founded by Flavel and others (commencing as early as 1655,even in the face of the Act of Uniformity).[15]  One attempt to resolve the conflict was by subscribing the First Article of the Thirty Nine Articles, which was incontrovertibly Trinitarian.  Fifty-nine of the ministers agreed to so subscribe, while nineteen (including Peirce and Hallett) did not.  The trial per se ended, with this Assembly resolving, “that no minister henceforth be ordained or recommended to congregations by the Assembly, unless he subscribed that First Article, or the 5th and 6th answers of the Assembly’s Catechism, or assented to the Assembly’s own declaration of faith, or sufficiently expressed the same sense in words of his own.”[16]  An attempt to prevent the triumph of Unitarianism, this method employed a formal principle of specific doctrinal subscription.  In this early phase, obviously subscription meant submission to the stated doctrine and a whole-hearted embracing of the credenda, without equivocation or mental reservation,the exact shortcoming of Peirce et al, which the Synod was trying to stem.

Earlier the same year, the Salters’ Hall Synod (Feb. 19, 1719) met, hoping to communicate some healing draft to the upcoming Exeter Assembly.  According to Drysdale, all at that Synod were willing to affirm the First Article and Catechism answers #5 and #6.  However, they faced a tactical decision,not altogether dissimilar to the American Adopting Act a decade later: What was the most irenic way to contend for orthodoxy, while  simultaneously pleading for mutual understanding.  By a narrow vote of 73-69 that Synod decided against the call for subscription.[17]

This led to a division among the London Presbyterians into Non-Subscribers, Subscribers, and Neutrals,[18] a crucial division of which American Presbyterians were certainly not unaware.  The Neutrals were led by Edmund Calamy, Jr. (also Isaac Watts and Daniel Neal).  The subscriptionists divided off and were led by Thomas Bradbury.[19]  The slim majority of non-subscribers, led by Joshua Oldfield, sent a letter on March 10th to Exeter.  It stated that the Salters’ Hall Synod opted not to subscribe, merely out of respect for Scripture and the desire to impose only scriptural wording on the conscience: “We take it to be an inverting the great rule of deciding controversies among Protestants, making the explications and words of men determine the sense of Scripture, instead of making the Scriptures to determine how far the words of men are to be regarded.”[20]  Still, they desired to repudiate Arianism.

Notwithstanding, the next month the subscribing Assembly communicated their “Advices for Peace” on April 7th, prefaced with 77 signatures (including 48 from London) which subscribed to the First Article and the 5th and 6th Answers of the Westminster Catechism.[21]

With such divided attempt at intervention, the Exeter Assembly, nevertheless, acted on its own, and in May of 1719 adopted the subscriptionist position by a vote of 3-1 (actually 59-19 as above).  However, Presbyterianism was badly divided.[22]  Both factions, of course, laid claim to the true chevron of the Protestant Principle.  Drysdale caricatures the non-subscribers as biblicistic, of greater learning and social status, and less ecumenical, while portraying the subscribers as more devotional, saintly, ecumenical (with the Independent Dissenters), and older.[23]  Of the non-subscriber tendency toward accommodation he states:

The Non-subscribing Presbyterian ministers showed a tendency toward the reception of new ideas, whatever these ideas might be; and, to adapt themselves to altering tastes, committing themselves to the current speculations and spirit of the times.  This was the section that slowly found themselves drifting away from former moorings, though they neither intended nor admitted to themselves that they were doing anything else than protesting against narrow, illiberal, and bigoted notions.[24]

Drysdale warns of an incipient rationalism[25] which can be present in some anti-subscriptionism, noting Chillingworth’s observation that, “it [the practice of non-subscription] had become the grand bulwark of latitudinar-ianism; . . . subsequently it got to be freely used in defense of all sorts of laxity by many among this non-subscribing class of Presbyterian ministers.”[26]  Sadly, by 1735 the Westminster Shorter Catechism was revised toward Arminianism and Arianism, and thereafter, British Presbyterianism careened toward Unitarianism or rationalism.  In 1736, one attack on the Westminster Catechism queried whether Presbyterians held to it due to “Bigotry or from Reason.”[27]

Drysdale offers several explanations for the decline of Presbyterianism in England, among which are the failure to enforce doctrinal conformity, the lack of control over schools and Academies, “the practical disuse of and departure from the more fully developed Presbyterial government and discipline as an operative and influential reality,”[28] and the temper of the times,which was loath to adopt strong convictions.

Notwithstanding, Drysdale notes the consequences of not holding to a subscribed creed.

Given then all this: given this spirit of opposition to restraint and of resistance to any trammels of human authority, with dislike to all subscriptions of Articles and compulsory authority; then, with the other conditions of the age, and the state of the young, half-trained Presbyterian ministers, Arianism, with its vagueness and flexibility, just met their case, and was a convenient disguise, to any that sought it, to conceal a denial of all supernatural elements in revelation . . .[29]

Agreeing with John Black, author of Presbyterianism in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Drysdale affirms: “Perhaps nothing in ecclesiastical history is more remarkable than the change which came over the Presbyterianism of England between the Westminster Assembly and the Revolution, in the transition from a jealous guarding of the complete truth, even to intolerance, in the former period, to the broad and even latitudinarian charity which prevailed in the latter.”[30]

Later, he will aver regarding the 1719 Salters’ Hall Synod that it was the “only instance perhaps that can be produced out of church history for many centuries, of an Synod of ministers declaring in favor of religious liberty.”[31]  Presbyterianism in England did decline thereafter, with Presbyterian ministers soon acquiring a reputation as those who “preferred speculative liberty to Evangelical orthodoxy.”[32] The meeting at Salters’ Hall appeared to be a turning point, with the “Disuse of distinctively Presbyterian methods of procedure, depriv[ing] the Churches of their chief staying power, and [leaving] them a prey to the downward tendencies of the time.”[33]  Peirce of Exeter, and other Presbyterian ministers, “became semi-Arian . . . and rapidly did the infection spread, becoming more virulent and deep-seated as the years increased.  Uncontrolled liberty . . . insisted on this as their right.  The Salters’ Hall controversy, in 1719, familiarized the people with the new destructive force that was to wreck the old Presbyterian interest, already sufficiently prostrate, under efforts to galvanize its departing and well-nigh exhausted energy.”[34]

Drysdale sees a relationship,if not causal, certainly circumstantial,between the demise of English Presbyterianism and the slide toward Unitarianism.  He does not overlook the “influence of the Non-subscribing or rather Anti-subscriptionist ministers.”[35]  Meanwhile the northern parts of England sought pulpit supply from Scotland.

Only the Scots helped preserve a small remnant, such that “the Scottish ministers, feeling repelled like their English subscriptionist brethren, kept themselves more and more aloof from the heterodox party; and in self-defense created . . . `the Scots Presbytery’”[36] in London in 1772.  In 1755, when the Presbytery of Newcastle was revived, it saw wisdom in beginning its “Rules of Orderly Procedure” with the following emphases on subscription,likely as learned from an earlier era:

We, subscribers, Ministers of the Gospel, for the honor of our profession, the maintaining and promoting peace among us, do declare: (1) That we will study to cultivate a good understanding amongst ourselves . . . (2) As Infidelity, Error, and Profaneness . . . seem to be on the growing hand, we disclaim Deism, the Arian, Socinian, Antinomian, Pelagian, and Sabellian errors and heresies as such, and resolve on all occasions to give our testimony against them; (3) And whereas Confessions of faith and Creeds are unreasonably run down, we are determined by the grace of God to make His Holy Word and Confessions, thereunto agreeable, the standard of our faith or religious principles, and the Rule of our Practice . . .[37]

Shortly thereafter, in the 1784 “Formula and Rules,” the British Presbyterians set forth:

1. Formula.,We, the Dissenting Ministers of the Newcastle Class, do own and believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice; we believe . . . [a list of theological affirmations]; and as these and all the other doctrines which we believe and profess are clearly comprehended and shortly and distinctly summed up in the Westminster Confession of Faith, we heartily acknowledge it to be the Confession of our Faith, and this we the rather do, as Arians, Socinians, Arminians, etc., have always recourse to Scripture, and wrest it to support their own erroneous tenets, whereas we are convinced, that the Westminster Confession gives us a view of the doctrines most agreeable to the mind of the Spirit of God in his holy word.  And therefore we promise (through grace) to maintain them both in our profession and preaching, . . .

2. Rules.,As every Society has a right to make Rules and Regulations for the direction of their own conduct, so this Class think it highly necessary that the following be consented to and acquiesced in by all its members that either are or shall be admitted members of it:,(1) That no person, ordained or unordained, should be admitted a member of this Class until he subscribe the above Formula . . .[38]

In retrospect, it appears that Custer’s Last Stand may have been at the Exeter Assembly in 1719, with both subscriptionism and Presbyterianism quickly deteriorating, thereafter.  Drysdale perceptively summarizes:

They had seen the evils of an imposed set of Articles, enforced by the State and statute law; and as conscious freedmen they learned to resent it, when practiced upon themselves. Their prejudice against tests and impositions, so natural and easy to be understood, led them to confound this with the very different thing of what is apostolically required,`a pattern or form of sound words,’ as an exposition of a teacher’s faith, for mutual confidence and co-operation.  Doubtless they had seen some men keep the faith, without such bonds, through times of trial and persecution . . . But this guarantee is not available in quiet and peaceful times.  Besides, while they persuaded themselves that they were wiser and more liberal than their fathers and founders in showing antipathy to all tests or standards or orthodoxy, they confounded terms of Church communion . . . with terms of ministerial office and honor, which has to do with the different question altogether of public and authorized teaching.[39]

Drysdale, the leading historian of British Presbyterianism, identifies the “question of ministerial subscription [as that over which] the English Presbyterians began to fragment.”[40]  He asserts that although Arianism became the resting home for such non-subscriptionists, “Any other form of doctrinal speculation that happened to emerge might have been as readily adopted.”[41]  He analyzes:

For the great question among these anti-subscription Presbyterian divines of the [18th] century was not so much about any one specific doctrine or other, but it was the principle of entire ministerial freedom of religious inquiry and profession.  This was an early and potent watchword with these non-subscribing Presbyterians, and under the spell of it there resulted many varying changes of doctrinal theory. . . . The absence of any provision for enforcing doctrinal unity beyond what was legally required by the Toleration Act, was a form of unrestrained liberty greatly relished by men embarking on a new departure in ecclesiastical life.  Intoxicated with its exhilaration, there were those among them who began to praise and ultimately even to worship this newly-found principle of an untrammelled ministry. . . . Changes at length inevitably began to appear, according as the practical habit of acting on the easy and non-restrictive method led to a speculative recognition of its pleasantness. . . . Christian doctrine . . . degenerated into a mere set of scheme of `opinions’ . . .[42]

Drysdale,even though not contending for subscription as a principle,does lament the consequences of anti-subscriptionism.  With a sadness of pen, he observes of the modernizing trends:

These views, which became so current, and which confound license with liberty and the lack of restraint with freedom, which mistake indifferentism and latitudinarianism for Christian charity, and which make ministerial laxness synonymous with Catholicity, soon began, like all empiricism to work its mischievous effects, to the detriment and ruin of the very interests which were meant to be safeguarded.[43]

Thus, in British Presbyterianism, it is clear that the concept of subscription had a definite meaning, one which was understood by friends and enemies alike as requiring adherence.  Furthermore, the doctrinal specifics adhered to were expressed nearly identically to some of the wording invoked by American Presbyterians in the same era.  Evidently, a tradition of subscription which was not unique to Americans was extant.

Is it conceivable that the American cousins knew nothing about this British experience a little later, as they took their Adopting Act?[44]  If, as Drysdale and others conclude, much of the American Presbyterianism was rooted in the British experience,[45] then it is the more imperative that we take seriously this English context, perhaps as defining.  At the very least, it is illuminating of nuances likely in the minds of American Presbyterians as they first practiced subscription.  Add to this, the knowledge of the Scottish and Irish controversies, and it seems that a tradition of subscription can be ascertained,even though some hesitate to admit such.

[1]. A. H. Drysdale, History of the Presbyterians in England: Their Rise, Decline, and Revival (London: Publication Committee of the Presbyterian Church of England, 1889), p. 121.  Hereafter, cited as Drysdale.

[2]. Drysdale, p. 124.

[3]. Drysdale, p. 131.

[4]. Thomas M’Crie, Annals of English Presbytery (London: James Nisbet, 1872), p. 104.  M’Crie also speaks of presbyterian ministers “as having `subscribed the discipline,’. . . in some form or other, it must have been this book that was subscribed . . .” (p. 108), referring to the 1587 Book of Discipline.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (New York: Harper, 1855), p. 445.

[7]. Charles Briggs, American Presbyterianism (New York: Scribner’s, 1885), appendix, p. xvii.

[8]. Drysdale, pp. 186-187.

[9]. George Rule, Puritanism in Politics, 1640-1647 (Oxford: The Sutton Courtenay Press, 1981), p. 57.

[10]. Drysdale, p. 188.

[11]. Drysdale, p. 208.

[12]. Thomas M’Crie in Annals of English Presbytery (London: James Nisbet, 1872) notes the over-reaction toward the practice of subscription, stemming from this period: “And indeed, as we may see afterwards, if the English presbyterians went too far in any point, it was in their uniform dislike to the subscription of religious creeds.” (p. 102)

[13]. David Hume, in his History of England (1778, repr. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1983), even used this term of the British Parliament, when they took adopted the Solemn League and Covenant in September, 1643.  Says Hume: “The parliament therefore, having first subscribed it themselves, ordered it to be received by all who lived under their authority.” Vol. V, p. 423.

[14]. Drysdale, p. 500.

[15]. Drysdale, p. 501.

[16]. Drysdale, pp. 501-502.

[17]. Drysdale, p. 502.

[18]. Richard Webster refers to five factions in the American synod: “the Protesters, the excluded, the silent, those who were dissatisfied with both parties, and the absent.” (Richard Webster, in his A History of the Presbyterian Church in America from its Origin until the year 1760 (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Historical Society, 1857), p. 174)

[19]. Drysdale, p. 503.

[20]. Drysdale, p. 504.

[21]. Drysdale, p. 504.

[22]. Drysdale notes that the tendency toward subscription was actually stronger among Independent Dissenters, than Presbyterian Dissenters. p. 505.

[23]. Drysdale, p. 506.

[24]. Drysdale, p. 506.

[25]. In a footnote (p. 507), he even sees the “influence of Locke” on these non-subscribers.

[26]. Drysdale, p. 507.

[27]. Part of the subtitle of Samuel Bourn’s An Address to Protestant Dissenters. Drysdale, p. 508.

[28]. Drysdale, pp. 509-513.  On p. 511, he notes: “Organization, indeed, is not life; but as the highest life seeks the best organization, the want of it is apt to be death, and the disuse of it deprives Churches of that staying and self-recuperative power which is most needed at critical junctures; and so they are left a prey to the downward and deadening tendencies that may be at work.  For want of Presbyterian supervision, the leaven of heresy had free course to work its way secretly.”  He goes on to note the invariable tendency to begin with a civil desire not to question personal honor, which may lead to dishonesty.

[29]. Drysdale, pp. 512-513.

[30]. Drysdale, p. 513.

[31]. Drysdale, p. 521.

[32]. Drysdale, p. 533.

[33]. Drysdale, p. 549.

[34]. Drysdale, p. 550.

[35]. Drysdale, p. 550.

[36]. Drysdale, p. 556.

[37]. Drysdale, p. 576.  It is to be noted how similar this language is to various denials of heresy and affirmation of orthodoxy in American Presbyterianism.

[38]. Drysdale, p. 577.

[39]. Drysdale, p. 509.

[40]. Drysdale, p. 519.

[41]. Drysdale, p. 519.

[42]. Drysdale, pp. 519-520.

[43]. Drysdale, p. 521.

[44]. Acknowledging the communication between the Old World and the New, Webster observed both the inadvisability of duplicating the European experience in the Colonies, and also the strength of colonial Presbyterian adherence:

The jealousy of the people for the integrity of the standards, and for exact and hearty adherence to them, was most reasonable, from their knowledge of the spread of the New Light “at home,” and from the probability that errorists would cross the ocean to “corrupt our church.”  Great alarm prevailed on account of the progress of error in the British Isles. . . . And some American Presbyterian ministers, following the Hemphill trial wrote to the Synod pleading for a method of identifying and excluding possible `wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ suggesting `our earnest desires, that ministers, besides credentials, should bring letters from brethren who are well known to us to be firmly attached to our good old principles and schemes.’(Webster, op. cit., pp. 114-115)

[45]. James R. Payton notes: “Contact [by early American Puritans] with their confreres in the British Isles, however, kept them abreast of developments there and the question soon received a considerable amount of attention.  In the decade of the 1690s, the Presbyterian churches in Scotland, England, and Ireland had each adopted the Westminster Confession and come to require subscription to it. . . . These churches in the British Isles were still embroiled in their controversies when in 1721 an overture moving in the general direction of requiring subscription to the Westminster standards came on the floor of the Synod of Philadelphia.” “The Background and Significance of the Adopting Act of 1729,” Pressing Toward the Mark (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), p. 135.

Confessional Subscription is a series composed of essays from the book The Practice of Confessional Subscription edited by David Hall, written by confessionally Reformed authors throughout history. The authors of this collected work of articles write from within the Reformed tradition about different aspects of confessional subscription and what it means to pastors, scholars, and laymen. This series is a must-read for anyone who desires to understand historic and contemporary ideas on what it means for one to subscribe to a confession. To purchase the book, visit ReformedResources.org.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.