Christian History Home > Issue 46 > John Knox and the Scottish Reformation: A Gallery of Martyrs and Architects
John Knox and the Scottish Reformation: A Gallery of Martyrs and Architects
The Scottish Reformation needed both—here are five who helped it succeed.
First Protestant martyr
Scotland’s first Protestant martyr was a member of the mighty Hamilton family. While some Hamilton men grew rich from their powerful positions in the church, Patrick did something different: he began to take his faith seriously.
While studying at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, he became attracted to the views of Martin Luther. He wrote a book that was condemned as heretical and for a time he took refuge in Germany. He quickly returned to Scotland and began preaching the Protestant faith.
In 1528 the powerful Archbishop of St. Andrews summoned Hamilton, saying he wished to have a debate. However, it was a ruse, and before Hamilton’s influential friends could muster any support, a church court hurriedly found him guilty of heresy. (While heresy trials ordinarily took weeks, Hamilton’s was rushed through in a mere twelve hours.)
In contrast to the trial, the punishment was long. It took six hours for Hamilton to die by burning at the stake. A witness of the execution noted that the martyr “never gave one sign of impatience or anger, nor ever called to heaven for vengeance upon his persecutors.”
Knox, who did not know Hamilton, claimed that the execution led many throughout Scotland to begin questioning the beliefs and practices of Catholicism. Or as one witness put it, “The smoke of Mr. Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it did blow upon.”
His death ignited reform
When Knox met Wishart in 1545, he was deeply impressed by the tall, handsome, well-mannered young preacher who had the curious habit of washing himself in a bathtub every night.
Wishart, who had been born into a refined family with aristocratic connections, was the spokesman for Scotland’s growing and rugged Protestant faction. Gentle and peace-loving, he worked hard to restrain the sometimes violent lairds (nobles) who supported him.
The formidable Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, executed five Protestants in 1544 and tried twice to have Wishart murdered. The Protestant lairds feared for Wishart’s safety and encouraged him to move from place to place to avoid capture. Knox, armed with a two-edged sword, was part of the bodyguard that traveled with Wishart.
Only in Scotland could a band of fifty armed Protestants (“heretics”) have wandered about, entering churches and preaching without government interference. Instead of the usual Latin Mass, worshipers heard fiery, hour-long sermons in their own tongue. Wishart denounced ceremonies and prayers to the saints, and advocated a married clergy.
Another shocking feature of Wishart’s services was congregational singing. His followers helped popularize The Good and Godly Ballads, a collection of songs that promoted the Protestant cause.
Wishart frequently predicted that he would be captured and burned. In 1546, believing his arrest imminent, he bade his followers farewell, saying, “One is sufficient for a sacrifice.” Knox reluctantly left him, and Wishart peacefully surrendered to authorities. He was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned by order of Cardinal Beaton.
A few days later, his death was avenged with the savage murder of Beaton by Protestant sympathizers—and the Scottish Reformation began its political phase. Still it would take another fifteen years before Protestants would see any significant victory.
Architect of the new church
If Knox had a successor as the spiritual leader of Scotland’s Protestants, it was Melville. Well-educated in Scotland and France, Melville came under the influence of reformer Theodore Beza in Geneva. He returned to Scotland, pursued a distinguished academic career, and changed the Scottish church.
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