“Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents
in the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644”
painted by John Rogers Herbert, RA ca. 1844.
This is a well-known picture just republished [December 2007] by permission of the Palace of Westminster Collection in a high quality full-colour format measuring 24” x 36” by Rev Andrew Moody of .
It comes complete with the key identifying the 67 persons pictured. A colour reproduction made in 1993 for the 350th anniversary of the commencement of the Assembly is of lesser quality.
The story of the picture is little known and is as follows. A Congregational minister, Rev Dr James W. Massie (1799-1869), who had been a missionary in India 1822-39, and was Secretary to the Home Missionary Society of the Congregational Union, suggested the picture and drew the outline.1 J.R.Herbert (1810-90) was a well regarded painter who had converted to Roman Catholicism about 1840 through the influence of the up-and-coming architect-designer of Gothic revival, A.W.N.Pugin (1812-52). Pugin was involved with the design of the new Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) following the disastrous fire of 1834. From about this time Herbert’s pictures are largely of religious subjects. Perhaps the 200th anniversary of the 1644 event pictured was in Massie’s mind. Certainly the Westminster Assembly picture belongs to about this period, and was exhibited by Massie in connection with his lecture series in various British cities on Liberty of Conscience from at least February 1846. The artist was permitted to view the Jerusalem Chamber by the Dean of Westminster 1842-45, Thomas Turton, and provides a faithful representation2 of the main meeting place of the Assembly, as he also does with most of the individuals pictured. The picture was issued as an engraved print by Thomas Agnew, Printseller to the Queen and Prince Albert, Exchange Street, Manchester on 16 December 1648. An interesting review appeared in The Baptist Magazine for August 1849.3
According to The Baptist Magazine,4 the printed prospectus of 1848 describes the scene in which Philip Nye, one of the five Independents in a largely Presbyterian Assembly, asserts ‘that, by God’s command, the magistrate is discharged to put the least discourtesy on any man, Turk, Papist, Socinian, or whatsoever, for his religion. They were for union in things necessary, for liberty in things unnecessary, and for charity in all.’ In other words, the claim is made that the Independents affirmed full toleration of all religious groups. The looks of surprise/horror on various faces is intended to reflect reaction to this bold affirmation. Accordingly, the original print under the 1848 title gives a reference to Robert Baillie’s letters Vol 2. p. 146 – “We were all highly offended at him – all cried him downe”.
However, if one looks up the Baillie reference, one finds Nye was opposing the Presbyterian desire for uniformity and therefore he urged toleration of all whose errors were not fundamental, as for instance the difference in church government between the Independents and the Presbyterians. But as to the toleration of those not orthodox in fundamentals, Baillie is a witness that the Independents at the Assembly were of the same mind as the Presbyterians, and opposed those – not members of the Assembly – such as John Goodwin, who favoured toleration of the various religions mentioned.5
Massie, as the one behind the commissioning of the picture, represented Nye and his fellow Independents as advocates of complete toleration in his lectures,6 but cites Baillie in a completely inaccurate fashion. The careful Baptist historian, E.B.Underhill, pointed out Massie’s erroneous claim in The Baptist Magazine for October 1847. His critique, slightly extended, was subsequently published.7
The picture is an impressive one. There is a certain artistic licence in that men who were not actual members are included, such as Baxter, Owen, Cromwell and Milton.8 It might seem strange that this picture of an Assembly dear to Presbyterians should have been conceived by an Independent who claimed too much for his party, be painted by a Roman Catholic convert, and represent that which Presbyterians of the time opposed as inimical to the reformation of the British church. But that’s how it is in God’s providence. But it is a picture capable of providing a useful talking point. I like The Baptist Magazine’s suggested alternative title: “The Westminster Assembly receiving Philip Nye’s development of the tendencies of Presbyterianism.”9
Dr Rowland S. Ward is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia in Melbourne.
This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of The Presbyterian Banner.
1 Extract from the Liverpool Albion 21 February 1846 as cited in J.W.Massie, Liberty of Conscience Illustrated. (London: John Snow, 1847) viii.
2 Liberty of Conscience, 138.
3 The Baptist Magazine for 1849 (London: Houlston & Stoner, 1849) 494-498.
4 Page 495.
5 Baillie, Vol 2, 145-146; note also Vol 2, 122.
6 Liberty of Conscience, 112.
7 The Independents not the first assertors of the principle of full liberty of conscience: with especial reference to the views of the five dissenting brethren in the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1849) 18pp.
8 See the justification for the presence of these spectators in Liberty of Conscience, 98-99.
9 Page 498.