Churches all over the world subscribe to the Westminster Standards, and many others hold them in high regard. Yet, perhaps puzzlingly, Presbyterianism in England declined from the high point of the Westminster Assembly in the middle of the 17th century into heterodoxy and diminished numbers by the beginning of the 19th.
Drysdale, writing at the end of the 19th century (A. H. Drysdale, History of the Presbyterians in England), lists some of the reasons why this happened. I list the headings along with my brief summary.
1. The want of order and discipline.
At issue was the ineffectiveness of the wider body of presbyters to exercise discipline, forgetting that the ministry was made for the church. Even orthodox ministers were more concerned about “their own dignity and liberty than to protect the Christian people from ministerial supineness or laxity.”
2. The mistaken notions they entertained about church confessions and subscriptons.
In the past men stood for conscience’s sake against the impositions of the state, ultimately leading to the Ejectment of 1662. However, this noble attitude was later used as a reason to deny the need to hold even to the apostolic requirement of holding to a “pattern of sound words”.
3. The churches had no control over the Academies, or their tutors and pupils, save to help sustain them and keep them going.
Some presbyterian institutions became seed-plots of heresy. As a result of the growing evil of family patronage and trusteeism, wealthy congregations accepted assistants from these institutions without congregations having adequate say.
4. The practical disuse of and departure from the more fully developed Presbyterial government and discipline, as an operative and influential reality, was an aggravation of other symptoms.
The leaven of heresy had free course to work, especially as Arianism was marked by cowardice and secrecy.
5. The age, being destitute of deep faith or warm earnestness, was impatient of all strong convictions and passionate enthusiasms.
This was not just true in the church but in other areas of society. There was general lack of conviction about anything. However, for the church vagueness conceals denial of essential truth.
6. The original set or attitude of the Presbyterians aided the process of the transformation.
The original desire of Presbyterians to maintain one church meant that after the ejection of 1662 Presbyterians continued to seek a route back in to the Church of England. Consequently they were too willing to tolerate heterodox views.
7. The state of the law respecting Trusts and Corporations is answerable in some degree for both the imperfection and the defection of Presbyterianism.
The law placed restrictions on who could own and build on land. Presbyterian congregations could not do so without expensively appointing trustees. This subtly undermined the presbyterial system of government.
8. Endowments helped to fix and perpetuate the Arianizing or heterodox congregations.
Pulpits supported by these endowments rendered the congregations mere audiences, as trustees and patrons possessed the main voices in appointments. Interestingly, these churches often became filled by Independents and Baptists whose churches had failed as a result of their heterodoxy. Indeed, the early decline of the Presbyterian church into Unitarianism is unfairly attributed to Presbyterians when in fact the greatest offenders were trained as Independents.