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His name was Patrick Hamilton. He was born into nobility. His mother’s father was the second son of the king. As a young man of only thirteen, he was given a position of abbot, which supplied a handsome income and a position for life. He used the income wisely. He studied first at Paris, then moved on to Louvain, Belgium. While at Paris, in 1520, Hamilton first read the writings of the heretical monk Martin Luther.

In 1523, he returned to Scotland, taking his place on the faculty at the University of St. Andrews. In a few short years, his lecturing and preaching drew the ire of Archbishop James Beaton, who was seated at St. Andrews. Hamilton decided to leave Scotland for Germany, taking up residence at the newly opened University of Marburg. While there, he encountered another exile, William Tyndale, who was busily working away on editing and printing his translation of the New Testament. Perhaps at Marburg, Hamilton felt a certain conviction, or perhaps there his nerves were sufficiently steeled. Whatever the case may be, Hamilton quickly realized that he belonged back in Scotland—whatever the cost. So he returned to his homeland.

In 1528, Hamilton published “Errors and Absurdities of the Papists, Touching the Doctrine of the Law and of the Gospel,” a piece also known simply as “Patrick’s Places.” The work clearly reveals his debt to Luther. And this work, like his preaching the previous year, again drew the indignation of Archbishop Beaton. Hamilton was swiftly arrested and swiftly tried. On February 29, 1528, he was burned at the stake, directly in front of St. Salvatore’s Chapel at the University of St. Andrews.

Patrick Hamilton was the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. But he would not be the last. For the next thirty years, from 1528 until 1558, many more would give their lives for the sake of the gospel in Scotland.

The story of the Scottish Reformation unfolds in a manner similar to that of the Reformation across the Continent and on the British Isles. It is a story of churchmen and theologians, monarchs and nobles. Ultimately, it tells of the prevailing power of the gospel.

While the Scottish Reformation finds parallels elsewhere, it nevertheless has its own unique contours. We’ll explore this compelling story by looking at three stages. The period from 1528 to 1558 provides the framework for the roots and beginnings. From 1559 to 1603, we see the Protestant church, or Kirk, being established in Scotland. The seventeenth century witnesses Scotland’s king, James VI, becoming James I, monarch of England and Ireland. Consequently, the 1600s marked a time of new horizons for the church in Scotland. The church, however, was forged on the anvil of suffering and built upon the martyr’s stake.

The Seed of the Martyrs, 1528–1558

The early church father Tertullian once remarked, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What was true in his day was true of the sixteenth century. Most people in Scotland followed the status quo when it came to religious practice and thought. The 1400s record only two martyrdoms in Scotland. These were of Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe.

In 1525, by official act of the Scottish Parliament, Luther’s ideas were deemed heretical. The act reads in part,

Forasmuch as damnable opinions of heresy are spread in diverse countries by the heretic Luther and his disciples, and this Realm and lieges have persisted in the Holy Faith since the same was first received by them . . . no manner of person, stranger, that happens to arrive with their ships within any part of this Realm shall bring with them any books or works of the said Luther.

In other words, “Scotland has been Roman Catholic, is Roman Catholic, and will be Roman Catholic.” It was as if a big red X was painted all over Luther and the Reformation solas. He and they would not be welcome in Scotland.

Luther’s books and “heretical opinions,” however, didn’t come in with strangers. They came in through Scotland’s very own Patrick Hamilton.

In the early church, the Roman Empire vainly tried to expunge Christianity by killing its adherents. Christianity, instead, spread—and would eventually prevail. If only the members of the Scottish Parliament had known their history, which was poised to repeat itself. Martyring Hamilton, as well as others, did not expunge the Reformation. Soon it would spread, and soon it would prevail.

What truly prevailed was the gospel. In one of his “places,” Hamilton offers “A Disputation betwixt the Law and the Gospel,” which unfolds as a poem:

The Law saith,
Make amends for thy sin.
The Father of Heaven is wrath with thee.
Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction?
Thou art bound and obliged unto me, to the devil, and to hell.
The Gospel saith,
Christ hath made it for thee.
Christ hath pacified him with his blood.
Christ is thy righteousness, thy goodness, and satisfaction.
Christ hath delivered thee from them all.

Hamilton, following Luther, saw a direct connection between the Pharisees and their works-oriented view of the law in the first century and the Roman Catholic Church and its view of salvation in the sixteenth century. Roman Catholicism promoted this works-oriented approach— that only succeeds in producing frustration and, ultimately, does not free one from sin’s bondage and from condemnation. Instead, Hamilton pointed to sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus. Hamilton pointed to the gospel as the only hope for his Scottish countrymen. For preaching such a view, the Roman Catholic Church martyred him.

After Patrick Hamilton came George Wishart, born in 1513. Like Hamilton, Wishart descended from noble stock. Like Hamilton, Wishart resonated with the teachings of the Reformation.

Wishart first came into contact with the gospel while teaching the New Testament in Greek. He had studied classics at the University of Aberdeen and then taught languages as a schoolmaster in Montrose, about forty miles south of Aberdeen along the North Sea coast. In 1538, a decade after Hamilton’s martyrdom, Wishart was charged as a heretic. Whereas Hamilton fled to Germany, Wishart fled to Switzerland. Whereas Hamilton came under the influence of Luther, Wishart came under the influence of Calvin.

The story of the Scottish Reformation, like that of the Reformation in other lands, is one of suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom. But it is also the story of the triumph of the gospel.

A few years passed, and Henry VIII invited Wishart to Cambridge in 1543 to join the cadre of Reformers assembled there. Then Henry sent Wishart back to Scotland on a mission to arrange for the marriage of young Crown Prince Edward, who would become the very reform-minded Edward VI.

Despite the risk, Wishart went. Despite further risk, he actually decided to remain in Scotland. By 1546, due to his preaching of the gospel, he was again charged as a heretic by Cardinal David Beaton (uncle to the then-deceased Archbishop James Beaton, who oversaw the martyrdom of Hamilton). On March 1, 1546, George Wishart was burned at the stake.

Wishart, however, did not stand alone. His many friends and fellow converts to the gospel were ready to challenge the Roman Catholic Church’s grip on Scotland. They overtook Cardinal Beaton’s residence, the Castle of St. Andrews. They took Beaton’s life and then rather unceremoniously displayed his body from the castle’s battlements. For a time, Protestant forces controlled St. Andrews.

Eventually, Mary of Guise prevailed upon the French to retake the castle and capture the rebels. Among the rebels was Wishart’s young disciple, John Knox. From 1547 until 1549, Knox found himself confined to a galley ship, sentenced to the relentless drudgery of rowing. Upon his release, Knox went into exile in England until Mary, known to us as “Bloody Mary,” ascended England’s throne. Knox, like so many other Reformers, fled to Calvin’s Geneva. He would stay there until 1558.

This first phase of the Reformation in Scotland ended as it began, with a martyrdom. Walter Myln had reached his eighty-second year. Formerly, he served as priest at Lunan. His body racked with infirmities, he was summoned by the ecclesiastical court, tried, and convicted of heresy. Witnesses speak of his tottering steps as he ascended the platform, where he would be bound to the stake. As the fire was lit, he mustered the strength to declare to the gathered crowd, “I am fourscore and two years old, and could not live long by the course of nature; but a hundred better shall arise out of the ashes of my bones.” Little did he know how soon his words would come to pass.

Knox and the Kirk, 1559–1603

After four decades of martyrdoms and persecution, the Scottish Reformation entered its second phase. If you were to look in on the Reformation in Scotland in 1558, you would likely abandon all hope for progress. Bloody Mary sat upon the throne in England. Mary, Queen of Scots, reigned in Scotland. Both queens were Roman Catholic to the core. But what a difference a year makes.

Bloody Mary died and her half-sister, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne in England. Empowered by this turn of events, John Knox went back to Scotland. Other Protestants in Scotland were emboldened, sparking rebellion in 1559. By 1560, the Scottish Parliament put an end to papal authority, removed the celebration of the Mass, and adopted the Scots Confession and the First Book of Discipline.

These confessional standards were written by six men who shared the first name John: Winram, Spottiswood, Douglas, Willock, Row, and, of course, Knox. The theology substantively reflected the work of another man named John—Calvin. It took the writing team all of four days to complete the Scots Confession. The Book of Discipline differed sharply with Anglican polity, so 1560 marks the official beginning of the Church of Scotland. And the Kirk, as it was called, was Presbyterian.

Among the many fascinating features of these two documents is the article in the Book of Discipline regarding the office of “reader.” This marked a transitional stage in the life of the Scottish church when there were very few trained ministers, far too few to fill the pulpits. So the church established readers. These were laymen educated enough to read and who would, in fact, read the Bible from the pulpit. There were also “expositors.” These were men who, after further study, were licensed to “exposit” upon the Scriptures that were read. One historian records that in 1567, for the 1,048 churches in the Church of Scotland, there were 257 ordained ministers, 455 readers, and 151 expositors. Efforts to train clergy increased and the offices of reader and expositor were eventually less needed.

In these documents, we see the Reformation solas clearly and strongly affirmed. We see the expression of Calvin’s theology, and we see the contribution to the question of the marks of the true church. The Reformers on the whole advocated two marks of the true church: the preaching of the Word and the right ordering and practice of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Calvin held a very high view of the Lord’s Supper, seeing it as a means for pastors to engage in the lives of parishioners. He desired that communicant members would meet with their pastor before they would be admitted to the table. For Calvin, in other words, church discipline was an implied mark of the true church. Knox and the other five Scotsmen named John took what was implicit in Calvin and made it explicit. According to the standards of the Kirk, the marks of the true church would be preaching, the sacraments, and church discipline.

While the Kirk was established in Scotland, it still endured a roller-coaster ride due largely to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the nobility. For the next dozen years until his death in 1572, Knox personally felt the full force of these vicissitudes. But he persevered and remained faithful to the gospel throughout.

To gain an appreciation of the fruit of Knox’s labors, we can simply look at the numbers. In 1560, there were merely a dozen or so reform-minded preachers openly proclaiming the gospel in Scotland. Seven years later, as mentioned above, there were just over two hundred and fifty. Another seven years later, after a dozen years of Knox’s leadership in his beloved homeland, there were more than five hundred.

Of Chucking Stools and Confessions, 1603–1648

If the Scottish Reformation was a roller-coaster ride in the sixteenth century, the ups and downs and twists and turns served merely as preparation for the seventeenth century. The first monarch of the seventeenth century was James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England and Ireland. James soon turned his attention south to England, leaving Scotland very much alone. The church in Scotland flourished during this era. Things changed when Charles I ascended the throne, bringing Archbishop William Laud with him.

One story tells the tale. Charles and Laud arranged for a Scottish Book of Common Prayer. It was first used in St. Giles in Glasgow, where John Knox had preached, on Sunday, July 23, 1637. In the audience that day, as she was every Lord’s Day, was Jenny Geddes, who ran a market stall in town. The custom of the day was to bring along a simple folding stool to sit upon during the service. As the minister read from the prayer book, Jenny promptly stood up, folded up her stool, and flung it right at the minister’s head. As it sailed through the air she shouted, “The Devil cause you colic in your stomach, false thief. Dare you say Mass in my ear?” These were exciting times.

Some say this event would eventually trigger the English Civil War. Some wonder if she ever existed, or is instead the stuff of Scottish myth and legend. Whatever the case may be, there is a sculpture of a stool in St. Giles in her honor.

The English Civil War proved the undoing of Charles I and his ecclesiastical henchman, William Laud. The 1640s in England witnessed the rise of the Puritan-and-Presbyterianminded Parliament, which convened the Westminster Assembly. Again the Scots played a prominent role.

Here, too, one story tells the tale. One Scot in attendance was George Gillespie. The assembly’s discussion over the catechism question, “What is God?” had stalled and seemed to be going nowhere. Someone called upon Gillespie to pray, and he proceeded, praying, “O God, thou who art a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, and truth . . .” You can read his prayer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 4).

The official symbol of the Church of Scotland is the burning bush inscribed with the words Yet it was not consumed. The story of the Scottish Reformation, like that of the Reformation in other lands, is one of suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom. But it is also the story of the triumph of the gospel.