Go to Antithesis Root Page

The Dawning Light: The Reformation in Scotland
An Overview of Scottish Presbyterian History - Part One

L. Anthony Curto

From an ancient presbyterianism to an early Lutheranism, the Scottish church stood vigilant against the forces of tyranny and apostasy.

"One generation will commend your works to another; They will tell of your mighty acts" (Ps.145:4). In Psalm 145, David contemplates God's mighty acts in behalf of His people, the church. David is both a student of history and an historian. As a student of history, he meditates on God's wonderful acts and glorifies the Lord who has performed such great things. He is encouraged in his own struggles by the testimonies of God's victories. As an historian, he presents God's mighty acts to others so they too can glorify God and be inspired in their labor for His kingdom. One of David's greatest joys was the historical task. David devoted himself wholeheartedly to this task as evidenced in his many psalms.

Unlike David, our generation generally has a very low regard for studying church history. I have often noticed, when attending the examinations of men for ministry, that many candidates have little knowledge or grasp of the significance of church history. This ignorance has an obvious effect on believers in general. Christians are not only generally ignorant about church history, but they also lack the desire to expend the energy to learn of God's marvelous works. This is tragic; it is also one of the reasons why the church is culturally ineffective.

We cannot understand God's work among our own generation apart from an understanding of God's work in previous generations. The goal of this series on Scottish Presbyterianism is to acquaint us better with the glorious workings of God, and by this, to become more skilled and efficient in our effort to build and labor in His righteous kingdom.

To accomplish this task, our focus will be God's work in His Scottish church from the time of the Reformation to the present. Why examine Scotland? There are three reasons. First, because the Scottish church has had a tremendous influence in the shaping of American Presbyterianism, especially through the middle and southern colonies, we, therefore, can learn more about our own heritage. Secondly, because the Scottish church dealt with situations which are similar to ours today, we can learn much from the way that church applied God's Word to those problems. Thirdly, because the modern church wanes in its commitment and allegiance to God's covenant, we can learn from the Scottish church's stirring example.

Scotland Before the Reformation

Until the third century, Christianity made little progress in Scotland. Scotland was a land of much spiritual darkness. The Druids, a society of heathen priests who practised all forms of idolatry, prevailed until about 277 A.D., when they were expelled from the land by King Cratilinth.[1] From this time on, Christianity began to develop in Scotland. As early as 314 A.D., we find representatives of the church in Scotland involved internationally in church affairs. They were represented in the Council of Arles, which was called by Constantine. Also Athanasius speaks of their steadfast support of the orthodox view during the Arian controversy.[2]

Prior to 450 A.D., the Scottish church, following the teaching of the New Testament, only allowed presbyters or elders to serve as teachers and ministers. After this time, Palladius introduced episcopacy to Scotland, when he was appointed by the Roman pope as the first bishop.[3] The Roman episcopacy grew slowly at first and reached its high point in the eleventh century.[4] Thus John Howie writes, "the gold became dim, and the most fine gold was changed."[5] The authority of Rome continued to spread its blight over the whole land.

Nevertheless, God, who is faithful, did not leave Himself without a witness to the gospel of His Son. A group of Culdees monks (Cultores Dei -- worshippers of God), which had flourished during the third and fourth centuries, continued to uphold the cause of Christ. In the seventh, eleventh, and fifteenth centuries, we see them standing for the truth of the gospel against Romanism. Some historians go so far as to suggest that it was the Culdee group which transmitted their gospel testimony to the Lollards.[6]

The Lollards of the fourteenth century were followers of John Wyclif. They were originally called "poor priests," who were sent out in pairs to spread the gospel. They were convinced that all episcopal claims were unbiblical, and they attacked the teaching of Rome concerning transubstantiation. They taught that the elect was the true priesthood and therefore rejected auricular confession. A notable Lollard, Paul Craw, was a native of Bohemia. Craw travelled to Scotland and was eventually martyred at St. Andrews in 1433. God used Craw's preaching so powerfully in addressing men on behalf of the Savior, that when he was martyred, his executers put a brass ball in his mouth to prevent him from exhorting the onlookers.[7] Romish authorities also prosecuted other Lollards. One testimony to Rome's opposition to the Lollards is found in a decree at St. Andrews University, given in 1416, which required all masters of arts students to renounce Lollardy and to swear allegiance to Romanism.[8]

Scotland at the Dawn of the Reformation

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, great spiritual darkness had once again spread over Scotland. It became a poor and superstitious country. The church had become wealthy by owning half of the Scottish realm. The monarchy was weak and her neighbors, especially England and France, constantly intervened in Scottish affairs.[9] Many Scottish citizens, fearing English aggression, strove for strong ties with Catholic France while others, especially the powerful family of Douglas, were favorable toward England. The monarch, James V, was the nephew of the English King, Henry VIII, yet he sought ties with France instead of England. James V married Mary of Lorraine and fathered their daughter, the infamous Mary Queen of Scots.[10]

Scotland During the Reformation: The Light Dawns

During the sixteenth century, Europe was changing. Reformation thought was shaping the direction of things to come at breakneck speed. Martin Luther's ninety-five theses quickly spread over the land, much to the chagrin of the Roman Pontiff. Such ideas would greatly affect Scotland, though it lay on the periphery. Archbishop James Beaton of St. Andrews and his nephew, Cardinal David Beaton were staunch supporters of Rome and France. Archbishop Beaton despised Protestant thought and went to almost any length to stop its spread. Beaton was able to thwart the spread of Protestant thought since he was a powerful Chancellor of the kingdom for James V. Many attempted to spread Luther's teaching in Scotland, but they met with little success. Even with the host of Satan arrayed against the spread of the Gospel, Luther's views were introduced into Scotland by the young Patrick Hamilton.

Patrick Hamilton (1503-1528) was related to Scotland's royal house by both of his parents. His mother was of the House of Stuart and thus related to James V of Scotland. Hamilton was also related, by his mother, to the Duke of Albany. By his father, Hamilton was nephew to the Earl of Avvan.[11] At age 14 Hamilton received the Abbacy of Ferme. Although Hamilton himself never took orders, one could receive some of the privileges of this office by the practice of commendum. This practice enabled families to receive revenues from the Church while the duties of office were fulfilled by other appointees.[12] As a result of this high position, Hamilton pursued his studies and eventually went to Paris to complete that task. Here he was exposed to both the humanism of Erasmus and the theology of Luther.

Upon his return to Scotland in the early 1520's, Hamilton attacked the abuses of the church's methods but did not enter into any debate concerning the doctrinal teachings of the Roman Church. Nevertheless, Hamilton was labeled as a Lutheran, and this attracted the attention of Archbishop James Beaton. For this reason, Hamilton left Scotland and journeyed to Germany, arriving at Wittenberg in 1527.

The reason Hamilton went to Wittenberg is not easy to ascertain. He may have gone to attend the university there since it was already renowned and drawing many students. Or perhaps he wanted to hear of Lutheran doctrine first hand. We know that he did have contact with Melanchthon and Luther while at Wittenberg. The real grounding of his principles came while at Marburg under the leadership of Francis Lambert. Lambert was a converted Franciscan and had a great influence on young Patrick. During this time, Hamilton wrote a work called Dyvers Frutful Gatheryngs of Scripture concerning Fayth and Workes, which later became know as Patrick's Places.[13]

This work clearly shows that Hamilton did not create a new system of theology; rather he depended heavily on Luther. As Peter Lorimer writes Hamilton "...was a Lutheran, not a Luther."[14] As a Lutheran, Patrick's Places dealt with justification by faith alone which was the heart of Luther's teaching.

Shortly after the writing of this treatise, Hamilton returned to Scotland. He began to preach the new-found doctrine and almost immediately gathered a following. Now he was invited to a conference at St. Andrews by Archbishop Beaton, with the design to entrap him for false teaching.[15] Some conferences were held, but eventually Hamilton was arrested for maintaining and propagating heretical views. Beaton had made sure that James V was indisposed, lest he intervene for his relative, young Patrick.

John Foxe records the objections raised by Beaton against the teachings of Patrick Hamilton:

Because Patrick refused to recant any of these positions, he was condemned as a heretic and turned over to the authorities to be executed. The sentence was signed by James Beaton, the Archbishop of St. Andrews, the Archbishop of Glasgow, the Bishops of Dunkeld, Brechin, and Dunblanc and the Earl of Casillis, who was only thirteen years of age.[17]

Hamilton was executed on the very day that he was turned over to the authorities in order to preclude any intervention by his uncle the king. He was martyred after dinner in front of the old St. Andrews college.

As Hamilton approached the executioner's stake, he spoke these words to his servant "...I have no more to leave thee but the example of my death which, I pray thee, keep in mind; for albeit the same be bitter and painful in man's judgment, yet it is the entrance to everlasting life, which none can inherit who deny Christ before this wicked generation."[18]

The first attempt to light the fire failed, and Hamilton received only minor burns to his face and hands. During this time, he continued to exhort the people to repent of their sins. The second attempt to light the fire succeeded, and from the midst of the flames Hamilton cried, "How long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."[19]

God heard the cry of his servant Master Patrick Hamilton, whose death, when he was only twenty-four years of age, lit the candle of Reformation in Scotland. Howie notes that, "the flames in which he expired were in the course of one generation to enlighten all Scotland, and to consume with avenging fury the Catholic superstition, the papal power, and the prelacy itself."[20]

The death of God's saints do not go unnoticed, and even though J. Beaton and his horde sought by fire and stake to stop the movement, it could not be checked. In the year 1539, Cardinal David Beaton succeeded his uncle at St. Andrews. He continued his uncle's hideous battle against the Protestant faith.

The Rise of George Wishart

In 1544 another young man, George Wishart, gifted by God to preach the Gospel, took up his calling in the town of Montrose. After a time, he left Montrose and went to Dundee and there began teaching on the Book of Romans. The Catholic clergy were distressed at the success of this young man. Cardinal David Beaton was able to stir up trouble for young Wishart, and by means of Robert Mill, Beaton commanded Wishart in the name of the Queen to cease his preaching.

Wishart left Dundee and moved on to the city of Ayr. The church in that city was closed to him so that he could not preach, and Cardinal Beaton again stirred up opposition to Wishart. Wishart did have his supporters, who were ready to stand with him to get him into the Church, but he refused and said that he would go preach at the market-cross (a cross found in the center of all the marketplaces at this time in the British Isles). Many were converted on this occasion.[21] No matter how much Satan may try to thwart God's designs, he never is able to succeed. God's Word never returns void (Is. 55:11).

Upon leaving Ayr, Wishart spent the next month preaching in the city of Kyle, but about this time he learned that the plague had broken out in Dundee. He left Kyle and headed to Dundee as a true shepherd and watchman. While in Dundee, Cardinal Beaton attempted to assassinate Wishart several times, but all such attempts were unsuccessful.

After the plague subsided, Wishart left to preach the gospel among the neighboring towns, with his ultimate destination being Edinburgh. The authorities made a further attempt on his life, from which he was spared. During this journey, Wishart met John Knox. He explained to Knox that he was tired of this world because he perceived that men were becoming weary of God.[22] Yet he did not give up but went out that afternoon and preached to a crowd in the town of Haddington. This proved to be his last sermon.

Wishart finally reached Edinburgh and was there only a few days when Cardinal Beaton persuaded the governor to apprehend him. He was immediately sent to St. Andrews. On February 27th, 1546, Wishart was summoned to appear before a convocation at Abbey Church to answer for his heretical views. Upon arrival, the court accused Wishart who answered with great skill. Having previously made up its mind, the court proceeded to condemn Wishart and sentenced him to be burned the next day as a heretic. Mr. Winram asked Wishart if he wished to receive the Lord's Supper, but the Cardinal intervened to prevent Wishart from receiving the elements.

The next day, two soldiers escorted Wishart to the place of execution. He addressed the crowd that had gathered and told them that he suffered with a glad heart. One of the executioners asked Wishart to forgive him. Wishart called him close and kissed his cheek and said "Lo, here is a token that I forgive thee; do thine office."[23] The fire was set, and the captain of the castle drew close to young Wishart to encourage him. At this Wishart spoke "this flame hath scorched my body, yet it hath not daunted my spirit; but he who, from yonder place, beholdeth us with such pride, shall within a few days lie in the same, as ignominiously as he is now seen proudly to rest himself."[24] This he spoke of Cardinal Beaton.

In May of that year (1546), a handful of men attacked the castle of Cardinal Beaton to avenge Wishart's death. James Melville stabbed the cardinal three times, and he breathed his last. These men took control of the castle, and being assisted by the English, held it, for two years. Later, the French attacked and took the castle, and those inside were made galley slaves. One man present at the castle was the friend and disciple of Wishart, John Knox.

The forces of evil could not halt the success of God's Word in Scotland. The Lord was raising a body of men who would be willing to sacrifice everything to see the true gospel proclaimed throughout the kingdom. The light had dawned in Scotland, and the darkness would not comprehend it.


[1] The Scots Worthies, (Edinburgh:Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier,1775) p. 1,2.

[2] Burleigh, J.H.S., A Church History of Scotland, (London: Oxford University Press, 1960) p. 5.

[3] Howie, p. 4.

[4] ibid. p. 4.

[5] ibid, p. 5.

[6] ibid, p. 8.

[7] Houghton, S.M., Sketches from Church History, Volume V, Part II, (London: Seeleys, 1857) p. 122.

[8] McGolrick, J.E., "Patrick Hamilton: Luther's Scottish Disciple", Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue 307, 1983, p. 23.

[9] Reid, W. Stanford, Trumpeter of God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982), p. 7.

[10] Walker, Willoston, A History of the Christian Church, (New York: Scribners, 1970) p. 369.

[11] McGolrick, p. 24. Howie, p. 11. Houghton p. 122.

[12] McGolrick, p. 24.

[13] Foxe, John, The Church Histories of England, Volume IV, Part II, Book VIII, (London: Seeleys, 1857), p. 563.

[14] Lorimer, Peter, Patrick Hamilton, The First Preacher of the Scottish Reformation, (Edinburgh: T. Constable & Co., 1857), p. 154.

[15] Howie, p. 12.

[16] Foxe, p. 560.

[17] Howie, p. 14.

[18] ibid, p. 16.

[19] Knox, p. 6.

[20] Howie, p. 16.

[21] ibid, p. 20.

[22] ibid, p. 25.

[23] ibid, p. 30.

[24] ibid, p.30.

Tony Curto is a pastor of Covenant Community Church, a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Westminster Seminary, Escondido, and the dean of Newport Christian Schools. He also serves as a senior editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
Return to CRTA Root Page
Return to CRTA