April 11, 2014 Broadcast

The Scottish Reformation

A Message by W. Robert Godfrey

The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther in Germany, but it rapidly spread throughout Europe. In some areas, Protestantism was quickly established as the official religion. However, in nations like France and Spain, the Reformation was eventually suppressed by relentless persecution. But persecution was not always able to extinguish the Protestant cause. In Scotland, the Reformation took root in spite of government opposition, largely through the diligent and persistent ministry of John Knox.

From the series: A Survey of Church History, Part 3 A.D. 1500-1600

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    The Scottish Reformation

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    How the Scots Changed the World

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    "Give Me Scotland, or I Die"

The Scottish Reformation

Stephen Nichols

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.

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.

How the Scots Changed the World

Aaron Denlinger

The sixteenth-century Scottish divines (pastors and theologians) who labored to build a national church characterized by sound doctrine and biblical worship never realized how far their influence would reach. They aimed, after all, to reform the Kirk, not to change the world. Ultimately, they did both. Their efforts bore fruit not only in a redefined church for the Scots, but in theological commitments, liturgical patterns, social customs, and political persuasions for people around the globe.

The extensive impact that the Scottish Reformers had was not due to any real novelty in their beliefs. The men who engineered the reformation of the Kirk in 1560, and continued to shape the Reformed Kirk during its formative decades, looked to Continental Reformers of preceding generations— men such as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin—for inspiration. They especially admired Calvin's ideas and the liturgy that Calvin and his copastors had developed for the church in Geneva, and they largely patterned the Kirk's doctrine and worship after it.

The Scottish Reformers' impact was rooted, rather, in two realities. First, Scotland became the first nation in which Calvinist doctrine and worship were implemented so thoroughly, on a relatively large scale, with lasting success (albeit with somewhat reluctant support from the crown). Second, a large number of Scots in subsequent centuries emigrated to various parts of the world, carrying the doctrines and customs of the Kirk with them along with their typically meager worldly possessions.

Few people today trace their roots to Calvin's Geneva, but countless people trace theirs to Scotland. Hence, much of what we recognize as "Calvinist" doctrine and worship in churches throughout the world—churches born from a nucleus of Scottish emigrants but decidedly more diverse in ethnicity today—has, in fact, come to us from Calvin via Scotland. And, significantly for our theme, the Scots rarely transmitted Calvinistic ideas or practices without leaving something of their own stamp on them.

Here we will look at three features of the historical Scottish Kirk that have had worldwide impact: Presbyterianism, the Westminster Standards, and an emphasis on Sabbath-keeping.


We see an obvious example of the process just described—the Scots' inheriting something from Geneva, tweaking it, and then distributing it to the world—in the form of church government we call Presbyterianism. The Scots didn't invent Presbyterianism—they just perfected it.

Andrew Melville was the principal architect of Scottish Presbyterianism. It was a form of church government he encountered in Geneva, where he lived several years after Calvin's death, teaching at Geneva's famous Academy. Returning home to Scotland in the 1570s, Melville and like-minded Scots sought to establish Presbyterianism as the Kirk's form of government, seeing much sense in a system that invested authority in a plurality of church leaders and ultimately, to some extent, in all the members of the church, who had some say in the election of their leaders; and that likewise refused to let civil authorities assume the reins of the church.

But the system needed some finetuning to fit the needs of the Kirk. For one thing, Scotland, unlike Geneva, had a monarch who occasionally required fairly sharp reminders that, within the Kirk, he was only one more member with no more authority than the rest. The Second Book of Discipline (1578), a work that served as the foundational charter for Scottish Presbyterianism, made it very clear that civil authority and ecclesiastical authority are two distinct things, and that "ecclesiastical power flows immediately from God" without requiring any endorsement from the crown.

Another distinguishing feature of Scotland as compared to the republic of Geneva was its magnitude. Given the larger size of Scotland, regular meetings of all those appointed as ministers and elders in the national Kirk were necessarily restricted to yearly gatherings known as general assemblies. Such gatherings weren't sufficient to deal with every issue that arose in every individual church within the span of a year. Thus, in the interest of providing more immediate oversight and assistance to the elders of a given congregation (the kirk session), the nation was eventually divided into presbyteries, geographically smaller networks of local churches whose leaders could meet more regularly and more easily for mutual encouragement and correction.

As Scots began to leave their shores and establish roots—and churches—in other countries, they re-created the form of church government they had known back home. Today, churches throughout the entire world—especially churches which explicitly identify themselves as Presbyterian—have forms of government nearly identical to the one devised in Scotland in the years after the Reformation.

The Westminster Standards

The Kirk's general assembly in 1647 adopted the Confession of Faith and related documents that had been recently drafted by the Westminster Assembly, which at that time was still in session in London. Two years later, the Kirk's general assembly insisted that a copy of this Confession along with the Shorter Catechism should be present in every Scottish home "where there is any that can read."

The Westminster Standards thus supplanted the Scots Confession of Faith, which the Kirk had adopted in 1560, as well as various catechisms— most often, an English translation of Calvin's catechism—that had been used by the Kirk for instruction in doctrine since the Reformation.

This decision wasn't based on any dissatisfaction with their earlier confession and catechisms. It stemmed, rather, from a desire for religious unity with England. That desire was ultimately frustrated when the Church of England, notwithstanding approval of the Westminster Standards by England's Parliament in 1648, reverted to its former confession (the Thirty- Nine Articles) several years later.

Scotland, however, never looked back from its adoption of the Westminster Standards, despite the irony that the Scots—fiercely nationalistic and proud of their own products as a general rule—then owned a confession and catechisms bearing the stamp "made in England."

The tremendous influence that the Westminster Standards have enjoyed around the globe is certainly due in part to Scotland's adoption of those standards. Without the Kirk's permanent endorsement, the products of the Westminster Assembly may well have become nothing but historical curiosities. Today, in part because of the Kirk's endorsement, those standards serve to norm theological instruction for countless people worldwide.

The Sabbath

The early modern Kirk was notable for its emphasis upon keeping the Sabbath holy, coupled with a strong distaste for observing any other "holy days." Insistence upon observing the Sabbath in fulfillment of the fourth commandment was, again, a characteristic of Reformed thought more broadly, though it may have had deeper roots in Scotland than elsewhere. For example, legislation passed under the eleventh-century Scottish Queen Margaret, intended to reform the church and nation, stressed the people's obligation to keep the Sabbath.

Unique to the Kirk at the time of the Reformation, however, was the insistence that no other days be credited with religious significance. In fact, when asked in 1566 to review the Second Helvetic Confession, a respected document penned by the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, the Scots felt compelled to offer qualified appreciation of the text, calling attention to their disapproval of the confession's tolerance for the celebration of Christmas, Pentecost, and Easter, "feast days" with no warrant in Scripture.

The Kirk, to be sure, never entirely succeeded in discouraging Christmas festivities in Scotland, and rarely have churches or Christians elsewhere in the world embraced the Kirk's argument for the complete eradication of a Christian calendar, and thus the refusal to attribute religious significance to any day beyond Sunday.

Nevertheless, the Kirk's general privileging of a weekly rhythm for work and Sabbath rest over a liturgical calendar year orienting believers toward various seasons and days defined by Christ's earthly ministry has affected attitudes toward both worship and work throughout the world. Fewer holy days translates, not only linguistically but also socially and historically, into fewer holidays. What sociologists have called "the Protestant work ethic"—an orientation in historically Protestant countries toward good, honest, hard work—is arguably the fruit of not only a general emphasis in Reformation thought on the godliness of every vocation but also a peculiar insistence in Scotland that believers should pause every Sunday for worship and respite, and more or less work the rest of the time.

We need not look very far to discern the impact that the Reformers of the Scottish Kirk had beyond the borders of their own nation. Their influence is felt in churches where believers value simplicity and regularity in worship; where both children and adults who hear the question, "What is the chief end of man?" might answer, without skipping a beat, "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever"; where members—though they may not understand the finer details of church government—know their church belongs to something called a presbytery and that their minister attends yearly something called general assembly.

Moreover, in any culture where democracy is highly valued; where an assumption persists that states shouldn't directly interfere in the government of churches; where there are no religious feast days; some debt to Scotland and its Reformers of centuries past likely exists.

"Give Me Scotland, or I Die"

Burk Parsons

Perhaps more than anything else, John Knox is known for his prayer "Give me Scotland, or I die." Knox's prayer was not an arrogant demand, but the passionate plea of a man willing to die for the sake of the pure preaching of the gospel and the salvation of his countrymen. Knox's greatness lay in his humble dependence on our sovereign God to save His people, revive a nation, and reform His church. As is evident from his preaching and prayer, Knox believed neither in the power of his preaching nor in the power of his prayer, but in the power of the gospel and the power of God, who sovereignly ordains preaching and prayer as secondary means in the salvation of His people.

Although Knox had been imprisoned and enslaved, and though he was often infirm and under threat of persecution, he consistently lived out his theology, believing that "one man with God is always in the majority." As such, the prayers of one man heard at the throne of God were a threat to the throne of Scotland. During the time of the sixteenth-century Scottish Reformation, Knox's ministry of preaching and prayer were so well known that the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, is reputed to have said, "I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe."

Above all, Knox was a committed pastor and churchman whose ministry served as a compass to numerous pastors throughout Scotland. Knox's unwavering commitment to the pure preaching of the gospel was a bright and shining light amid the darkness in a nation steeped in doctrinal and ecclesiastical compromise. He reinvigorated God's shepherds throughout the nation; this, in turn, reformed the church and, thus, in God's providence, revived the country. Most notably, what inspired the pastors perhaps more than any other characteristic in Knox was that he did not fear men, because he feared God—he was a man willing to offend men, because he was unwilling to offend God.

John Knox preached and prayed to the end that God would rescue Scotland precisely because he was clinging to Jesus' promise and prayer to save His people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. It should be no surprise to us then that when Knox was near death, he asked his wife to read to him the High Priestly Prayer in John 17 that our Lord Jesus prayed the night before He went to the cross. Knox called this passage "my first anchor." For indeed, Christ is the captain of our souls and Christ's prayer is the anchor and only hope of the nations. Therefore, in light of so great an example of God's power working through one man, let each one of us pray with the same passion for our nation—and all nations—as Knox prayed for Scotland.

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