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.