John Knox and the Scottish Reformation: A Gallery of Martyrs and Architects
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.
Melville was strongly presbyterian and at one point turned down the offer to become Archbishop of St. Andrews, the most prestigious church office in Scotland. Going further than did Knox, he rejected the episcopal system of church government altogether. He believed that ministers and elders should be elected by the members of the church, not appointed by bishops, let alone a king!
In 1582 he became moderator of the Scottish church’s General Assembly. He played a key role in its ratification of the Second Book of Discipline, often called the “Magna Carta of Presbyterianism” because it was the first document to lay out the key tenets of presbyterian government.
His staunch defense of presbyterianism angered King James VI (James I of England), who sought to impose the episcopal system on Scotland.
An audience with James in 1606 led to Melville’s four-year imprisonment in the Tower of London. After his release, Melville spent the rest of his days in exile in France as a professor of biblical theology.
But Melville and his followers ultimately prevailed; Scotland never accepted the episcopal system. In fact, in the reign of James’s son, Charles I (1625–1649), the resistance of the Scots to episcopalianism precipitated the bloody civil war that culminated in Charles’s execution and permanently secured the place of presbyterianism in Scotland.
Protestant in high places
Though an illegitimate son of King James V (and thus half-brother of the notorious Mary Queen of Scots), he was a Stewart. That combined with his stellar character would make him an influential figure in Scottish politics, especially during the Reformation.
By the time he was 19, he was a member of the Privy Council, essentially the queen regent’s executive committee, which ran the country’s affairs. He was instrumental both in the 1558 marriage of his half-sister Mary to the French Dauphin (heir to the French throne) and in Mary’s return to Scotland as queen in 1561.
During the same time, Stewart was won over to Protestantism and became a member of the Lords of the Congregation, nobles who came together to bring about religious and political revolution. Though his conversion annoyed the devoutly Catholic Mary, he became her chief adviser when she returned to Scotland.
In that position, Stewart used his power to maintain and extend the influence of Protestantism while not alienating the queen. His patience and tact irritated Knox, who thought him a traitor to the cause. But in general, Stewart maintained the respect of both Protestants and Catholics. He was, as one historian put it, “a Puritan with natural charm and diplomacy.”
In 1562, he gained the earldom of Moray (so that today he is often referred to as such, or simply as “Moray”), but he found himself eclipsed when Mary wedded the vain Lord Darnley, another Roman Catholic. Moray, seeing that Protestant gains might easily be reversed, attempted to revolt. But Mary, dressed in armor, joined her husband and drove Stewart out of Scotland.
A series of political blunders forced Mary to abdicate in 1567. The throne now belonged to infant James VI, and Stewart was appointed regent ruling briefly in his stead. After Mary’s tumultuous reign, Stewart determined to set Scotland on a course of peace and unity. He strengthened the Protestant church, restrained warring nobles, and gave protection to the common people. Stewart is known in Scottish history as the “Good Regent.”
Still it was a violent age, and Stewart died a violent death, shot by a member of the rival Hamilton family.
Left his imprint on Scotland
One secular historian described Knox as “Calvin with a sword.” Indeed, John Calvin, the great theologian and leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, gave Knox his theology. But in one significant respect, Knox outpaced his mentor.
Calvin was born in France and was trained as a lawyer; he had a gradual but solid conversion to Protestant teaching. He became a Protestant leader in Paris, but after an explosion of anti-Protestantism, he traveled through Europe to avoid arrest.
He finally settled in Geneva, where his Scripture-centered theology soon became the basis for the city’s life. There he tirelessly preached, wrote, and acted as moral overseer of the city.
Calvin and Knox first met in 1554. Knox, like other Protestants in England, had taken refuge in Switzerland during the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor. Calvin described Knox as a “brother … laboring energetically for the faith.” Knox, for his part, was impressed with Calvin’s Geneva, calling it “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.”
For a time, Knox pastored the English congregation in Geneva, where he soaked in the orderly Protestant theology of Calvin’s famous Institutes (first published in 1536 and enlarged throughout Calvin’s lifetime). Thus Calvin, via Knox, gave Scotland the rudiments of its presbyterian system of church government, its Bible-centered love of learning, its concern for strict morality, and its unceremonial, sermon-centered worship.
When it came to the relationship of the Christian to the state, however, Knox was more radical than his mentor. Where Calvin merely permitted disobedience to an ungodly ruler or immoral law, Knox championed armed rebellion—a type of Calvinism that made religious revolution in Scotland possible.
J. Stephen Lang is a writer and editor living in Richmond, Virginia. He is co-author of Dates with Destiny (Revell, 1990).
Copyright © 1995 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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