Dealing with a Holy War at a distance of four centuries is perilous business. With a pen and not a camera as the medium, partisanship is almost inevitable. Lights tend to be heightened, shades darkened, events and individuals judged in isolation or by modern standards.

This applies especially to the Scottish Reformation. Great and deep was the evil; proportionately violent was the remedy. It came late to this backward little country which had barely been touched by the Renaissance. Luther and Henry VIII were both dead, and even Calvin’s course was nearly run before reform swept through the land where Hamilton and Wishart, harbingers of a new day, had paid the price of defiance to Rome.

Quintin Kennedy, no rebel himself, lamented the church’s corruption in 1558 and told how vacant benefices were coveted by great men: “If they have a brother or son … nourished in vice all his days, he shall at once be mounted on a mule, with a sidegown and a round bonnet, and then it is a question whether he or his mule knows best to do his office. What wonder is it … the poor simple people, so dearly bought by the blood and death of Christ, miserably perish, the Kirk is slandered; God is dishonoured.”

Knox and his colleagues ridiculed priestly pretensions, tore aside the veil and exposed the tricks of the scene which lay behind. More positively, they taught four chief principles:


1. Holy Scripture is the sole and sufficient rule of faith and practice. Claiming to hold the key of knowledge, Rome obscured it in a dead language and stressed those utterances of Fathers, councils, and popes which furthered her own ends. The Reformers declared that such things were of value if they coincided with Scripture, that the Gospel was for all, and that even the poorest and meanest should have free access to God’s Word in the vernacular.

2. Man is justified by faith alone. Although it is inaccurate to suggest that the Roman church completely set aside the work of Christ as the ground of forgiveness and salvation, human merit was so presented as to depreciate our Lord’s sacrifice, and to sell heaven and eternal life for money. “Nae penny, nae paternoster,” said the Scots. The new-old proclamation was of Jesus Christ as an all-sufficient and all-justifying Saviour. The free gift of eternal life against Rome’s merchandise of souls (what Luther called the article of a standing or falling church)—that was what Knox felt his vocation to preach “by tongue and living voice in these most corruptible days.”

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3. The minister is simply a teacher of the Gospel, a servant, and a steward. The priest professed to repeat Christ’s sacrifice for both living and dead, to stand between God and man, and to forgive or retain sins. As his power increased, boosted by fear, ignorance, and superstition, so the vision of Christ was obscured. The Reformers taught that the function of Christ’s pastors and teachers was to preach the Gospel, expound Scripture, tend the flock, and as stewards administer the laws which Christ appointed in his Word.

To John Knox

Gentler spirits have lived

in Christendom,

More gracious messengers preached

The Word of Christ

without a-dinging the pulpit,

But God knew what He was doing

when He chose you

to build his Church.

He knew the temptations to compromise,

the dulcet voice pleading in tears

the soft hand of scheming sovereignty.

You were keen as steel,

As deaf as ice:

God’s man

for God’s work

in God’s time.


4. The people have a voice in the election of pastors and office-bearers. Rome expected the surrender of judgment, reason, and conscience to priests often of outrageous reputation. The Reformers held that Christian people are Christ’s flock, that offices and ordinances are appointed for their good and are effective only as they promote the instruction, spiritual welfare, and prosperity of the people who were to be consulted in the election of ministers and lay-readers. This latter principle was observed at the election of the first superintendent on March 5, 1560.

So the kirk held to the Scriptures and to its new Confession of Faith, cast out “Satan and his ministers,” settled pastors, subdued the bishops and other “insolent oppressors,” and dismissed for defiant nonconformity the whole faculty at the University of Aberdeen (still the least Presbyterian of Scots towns).


Then trouble came. Among the highest-ranking nobility, few had identified themselves with the cause of reform. Many of them, on the other hand, having “greedily gripped to the possessions of the kirk,” refused to acquiesce in Knox’s idealistic schemes and to allow the church’s lands and revenues to pass to the ministers, the schools, and the poor.

Thus no new state arose to partner the new church in a Christian commonwealth. Therein lies the tragedy of John Knox. Blamed, moreover, for making use of worldly allies, for employing every kind of stratagem to achieve his aims (a naive accusation by a church no stranger to such tactics), defamed by some who know him only as the man who made a queen weep, Knox is often remembered rather as a destroyer of idolatry than as the builder of a church. “What I have been to my country,” he prophesied, “albeit this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth.”

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Another persistent fallacy is the concept of Knox as the prototype of Presbyterianism. He had no love for bishops, but also no fanatical devotion to presbytery. The Confession of Faith clearly indicates that in the house of God all things are to be done decently and in order, but that there was “no one policy nor order in ceremonies appointed for all ages, times, and places.”

This was partially forgotten with the advent of Knox’s successor, Andrew Melville, sometimes described as the “Hildebrand of presbytery.” Gradually there emerged in the new church an ecclesiasticism scarcely less pretentious and autocratic than that of Rome. It led Melville and his colleagues to make claims on the state which may have been practicable in Calvin’s theocracy, but which did not and could not fit the circumstances of James VI’s Scotland. “God’s sillie vassal” never forgot the overbearing ministers who surrounded his earlier throne. Reviving the Byzantine theory of Divine Right, he taught his son to regard himself as God’s vicegerent and contrived to restore in Scotland a full-fledged episcopacy as more amenable to royal influence. Thus was precipitated a conflict which was to end only in 1688 with the fall of his House.

The first Reformers in Scotland, battling against Romish errors, asserted the claims of Christ’s prophetic and priestly offices, and preached that “none but Christ saves.” Their seventeenth century successors, resisting Erastianism and contending for His kingly prerogatives, declared that “none but Christ reigns.”

It was an evil time. The Reformed church was still virtually in a state of siege, with the shadow of Rome a perennial bogey often espied behind episcopal vestments. Antinomians were a further threat—“… fantastical men who, under pretence and cloak of Christian liberty, would abolish and cast out laws and judgments.” The Stuart kings, bent on their impossible theory, alternately wooed and bludgeoned. Prudence whispered compromise, but the Rutherfords, Guthries, Camerons, and Renwicks would have none of it. The Covenanters are often cynically dubbed “martyrs by mistake,” particularly as the intervening centuries have pronounced it unfashionable and immature to display strong religious feeling. For us in 1960 it is mean work to forget those who strove to give us the spiritual freedom we take so much for granted.

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After the Stuarts went into exile, presbytery was triumphantly re-established under William of Orange, though the Cameronians mourned a “defective” settlement. Parliament ratified the Confession of Faith, and episcopacy in Scotland received a deathblow.

In theory the Establishment should have lived happily ever after. In fact we cannot deny an Episcopalian historian’s verdict: “The earlier annals of Presbyterianism show that it required no extraneous aid to create dissension in its ranks; and its subsequent history affords ample illustration of the same divisive tendency.” Glasites and Marrow Men, Original Seceders and Relief Synod, Cameronians, bizarre sects and heresy-hunts—all confront and bewilder and shame us during the eighteenth century.

As old controversies faded, new differences arose within the Establishment. Knox and Melville led the church from a medieval feudalism in religion back to the Bible; evangelicals and moderates led it from the Old to the New Testament.

The Stuarts meanwhile took a typically ostentatious farewell of British history when, on the death of Charles Edward in 1788, his brother, a Roman cardinal, proclaimed himself king as Henry IX—and even Scottish Episcopalians disowned him.

The moderates fashioned the kirk into a great political institution but played down that cherished Reformation principle which gave the people a voice in the election of ministers. Battle was joined over the vexed question of patronage, to maintain which system the civil power was enlisted in a number of notorious cases. The Disruption of 1843 became a lamentable necessity, and what Scotland owes the Free Church can never be fully assessed.

The ensuing years saw a secession from the Free Church and a number of unions involving the Establishment and other Presbyterian bodies which culminated in that of 1929. The national church now has a million-and-a-third members, while the total strength of the four smaller Presbyterian churches probably falls short of 40,000 (though their influence is disproportionately great). The original seceders of 1733 acceded in 1956 amid great rejoicing, but they were characteristically minus one congregation which was admitted to the remnant of the Free Kirk.

Three recent developments should be noted:

1. There is a revival of Romanism in Scotland. Increasing fifteen-fold over the last century, baptized Romans now number 750,000. Their communicant membership in Glasgow exceeds that of all the Presbyterian churches added together.

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2. Presbyterian-Anglican reunion negotiations were characterized by the scrupulous courtesy and thoroughness one expects of the General Assembly, bedeviled by an ill-informed “popular” press campaign which adjured patriots to remember Bannockburn and Knox, and inevitably doomed to failure by an Anglicanism which made episcopacy the condition of intercommunion rather than the basis of union.

3. The Lewis Revivals and the Graham Kelvin Hall Crusade have shown that there are signs of a religious re-awakening. That the kirk has not forgotten its spiritual heritage is seen in this year’s Quartercentenary celebrations to which a word from Samuel Rutherford is singularly pertinent: “Your noble fathers, at the hazards of their lives, brought Christ to this nation, and it shall be cruelty to posterity if ye lose Him to them.”

We Quote:

A BALANCED JUDGMENT—“On the professional religious front, the picture is baffling … (including) the infatuation of highly placed churchmen with political power; their failure to grasp the meaning of the free society, and their effort to put the church into political programs hostile to it; their ambiguity toward Communism. I deliberately use neutral terms here: ‘ambiguity toward Communism,’ but in the light of the recent controversy surrounding the Air Force Manual one is obligated to be more specific. Among other charges it is alleged by the Manual that there are Communists among the clergy. This allegation is categorically denied by a spokesman for the National Council of Churches. Each side in this controversy fired its shots through a smoke screen, and the general alarm was exploited by the unstable elements who feed on this kind of thing.… But we can get the current fracas into better focus if we go back a few years and draw upon the knowledge and honesty of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the August 19, 1953 issue of The Christian Century Niebuhr wrote an article titled ‘Communism and the Clergy.’ The piece was occasioned by a statement of Bishop Oxnam which made a sweeping denial of Communist influence in the churches. ‘Such a statement causes difficulties,’ writes Niebuhr, ‘because there are in fact communist sympathizers and fellow travelers in the church. I wonder whether Bishop Oxnam ought not to have admitted this more freely.…’ Niebuhr goes on to assert that ‘It must be affirmed that there have never been many explicit Stalinists in the churches.… Nevertheless there are a few and we ought to admit it.’ How does the seemingly incongruous union between Stalinism and Christianity occur, we ask, and Niebuhr answers, ‘… the pathetic clerical Stalinism could not have developed except against the background of a very considerable Marxist dogmatism in the “liberal” wing of Protestant churches.’ But even though it published Niebuhr’s admission and explanation, The Christian Century jumps into the present controversy with a denunciation of the Manual’s allegation, referring to the Communism charge as ‘… this false and defamatory attack on clergymen and churches …’ (3/2/60). Thus the person who tries to make a balanced judgment is beset on the one side by those who see Communists everywhere; and on the other, by those who deny that there are Communists anywhere!”—The Rev. EDMUND A. OPITZ of The Foundation for Economic Education, in a vesper sermon at Beloit College, Wisconsin, March 6, 1960.

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Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.

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