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 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.