A Description of the Westminster Assembly

by Robert Baillie

On Monday morning we sent to both Houses of Parliament for a warrant for our sitting in the Assemblie. This was readilie granted, and by Mr Hendersone presented to the Proloqutor; who sent out three of their number to convoy us to the Assemblie. Here no mortal man may enter to see or hear, let be to sitt, without ane order in wryte from both Houses of Parliament. When we were brought in, Dr Twisse had ane long harangue for our welcome, after so long and hazardous a voyage by sea and land, in so unseasonable a tyme of the year: when he had ended, we satt down in these places which we have since keeped.

The like of that Assemblie I did never see, and, as we hear say, the like was never in England, nor anywhere is shortlie lyke to be. They did sit in Henry the 7th’s Chappell, in the place of the convocation: but since the weather grew cold, they did go to Jerusalem chamber, a faire roome in the Abbey of Westminster, about the bounds of the College fore-hall, but wyder. At the one end nearest the doore, and both sydes, are stages of seats, as in the new Assemblie House at Edinburgh, but not so high; for there will be roome but for five or six score. At the upmost end there is a chair set on ane frame, a foot from the earth, for the Mr Proloqutor Dr Twisse. Before it on the ground stands two chairs for the two Assessors, Dr Burgess and Mr Whyte. Before these chairs, through the length of the roome, stands a table, at which sitts the two scribes, Mr Byfield and Mr Roborough.

The house is all well hung, and hes a good fyre, which is some dainties at London. Foranent the table, upon the Proloqutor’s right hand, there are three of four rankes of formes. On the lowest we five doe sit. Upon the other, at our backs, the members of Parliament deputed to the Assemblie. On the formes foranent us, on the Proloqutor’s left hand, going from the upper end of the house to the chimney, and at the other end of the houswe, and backsyde of the table, till it come about to our seats, are four or five stages of formes, whereupon these divines sitts as they please; albeit commonlie they keep the same place. From the chimney to the door there is no seats, but a voyd for passage. The Lords of Parliament uses to sit on chaires, in that voyd, about the fire.

We meet every day of the week, but Saturday. We sitt commonlie from nine to one or two afternoon. The Proloqutor at the beginning and end hes a short prayer. The man, as the world knows, is very learned in the questions he hes studied, and very good, beloved of all, and highlie esteemed; but merelie bookish, and not much, it seems, acquaint with conceived prayer, [and] among the unfittest of all the company for any action; so after the prayer he sitts mute. It was the canny convoyance of these who guides most matters for their own interest to plant such a man of purpose in the chaire. The one assessour, our good friend Mr Whyte, hes keeped in of the gout since our coming; the other, Dr Burgess, a very active and sharpe man, supplies, so far as is decent, the Proloqutor’s place.

Ordinarlie there will be present above threescore of these divines. These are divided in three Committees; in one whereof every man is a member. No man is excluded who pleases to comes to any of the three. Every Committee, as the Parliament gives order in wryte to take any purpose to consideration, takes a portion, and in their afternoon meeting, prepares matters for the Assembie, setts doune their mind in distinct propositions, backs their propositions with texts of Scripture.

After the prayer, Mr Byfield, the scribe, reads the propositions and Scriptures, whereupon the Assemblie debates in a most grave and ordilie way. No man is called up to speak; bot who stands up of his own accord, he speaks so long as he will without interruption. If two or three stand up at once, then the divines confusedlie calls on his name whom they desyre to hear first: On whom the loudest and manifest voices calls, he speaks. No man speaks to any bot to the Proloqutor. They harangue long and very learnedlie. They studie the questions well before hand, and prepares their speeches; but withall the men are exceeding prompt, and well spoken. I doe marvell at the very accurate and extemporall replyes that many of them usuallie doe make. When, upon every proposition by itself, and on everie text of Scripture that is brought to confirme it, every man who will hes said his whole minde, and the replyes, and duplies, and triplies are heard; then the most part calls, To the question.

Byfield the scribe rises from the table, and comes to the Proloqutor’s chair, who from the scribe’s book, read the proposition, and says, as many as are in opinion that the question is well stated in the proposition, let them say I; when I is heard, he says, as many as think otherwise say No. If the difference of I’s and No’s be cleare, as usuallie it is, then the question is ordered by the scribes, and they go on to debate the first Scripture alleadged for proof of the proposition. If the sound of I and No be near equall, then says the Proloqutor, as many as say I, stand up; while they stand, the scribe and others number them in their minde; when they sitt down, the No’s are bidden stand, and they likewise are numbered. This way is clear enough and saves a great deal of time, which we spend in reading our catalogue.

When a question is once ordered, there is no more debate of that matter; but if a man will vaige, he is quickly taken up by Mr Assessor, or many others, confusedlie crying, Speak to order, to order. No man contradicts another expresselie by name, bot most discreetlie speaks to the Proloqutor, and at most holds on the general, The Reverend brother, who latelie or last spoke, on this hand, on that syde, above, or below. I thought meet once for all to give yow a taste of the outward form of this Assemblie. They follow the way of their Parliament. Much of their way is good, and worthie of our imitation; only their longsomenesse is wofull at this time, when their Church and Kingdome lyes under a most lamentable anarchy and confusion. They see the hurt of their length, but cannot get it helped; for being to establish a new Plattforme of worship and discipline to their Nation for all time to come, they think they cannot be answerable, if solidlie, and at leisure, they doe not examine every point thereof.

“A Description of the Westminster Assembly” is from Robert Baillie’s Letters and Journals, ii. 107-109. Quoted in A Short History of the Westminster Assembly by William Beveridge, 1904. Revised and Edited by J Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Academic Press, Nov 1993, pp 122-125.

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