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.