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. 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. 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. But what a difference a year makes. Bloody Mary died and her half-sister, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne in England.
His name was Patrick Hamilton. He was born into nobility. His mother’s father was the second son of the king. As a young man of only thirteen, he was given a position of abbot, which supplied a handsome income and a position for life. He used the income wisely. He studied first at Paris, then moved on to Louvain, Belgium. While at Paris, in 1520, Hamilton first read the writings of the heretical monk Martin Luther.
In 1523, he returned to Scotland, taking his place on the faculty at the University of St. Andrews. In a few short years, his lecturing and preaching drew the ire of Archbishop James Beaton, who was seated at St. Andrews. Hamilton decided to leave Scotland for Germany, taking up residence at the newly opened University of Marburg. While there, he encountered another exile, William Tyndale, who was busily working away on editing and printing his translation of the New Testament. Perhaps at Marburg, Hamilton felt a certain conviction, or perhaps there his nerves were sufficiently steeled. Whatever the case may be, Hamilton quickly realized that he belonged back in Scotland—whatever the cost. So he returned to his homeland.
In 1528, Hamilton published “Errors and Absurdities of the Papists, Touching the Doctrine of the Law and of the Gospel,” a piece also known simply as “Patrick’s Places.” The work clearly reveals his debt to Luther. And this work, like his preaching the previous year, again drew the indignation of Archbishop Beaton. Hamilton was swiftly arrested and swiftly tried. On February 29, 1528, he was burned at the stake, directly in front of St. Salvatore’s Chapel at the University of St. Andrews.
Patrick Hamilton was the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. But he would not be the last. For the next thirty years, from 1528 until 1558, many more would give their lives for the sake of the gospel in Scotland.
The story of the Scottish Reformation unfolds in a manner similar to that of the Reformation across the Continent and on the British Isles. It is a story of churchmen and theologians, monarchs and nobles. Ultimately, it tells of the prevailing power of the gospel.
While the Scottish Reformation finds parallels elsewhere, it nevertheless has its own unique contours. We’ll explore this compelling story by looking at three stages. The period from 1528 to 1558 provides the framework for the roots and beginnings. From 1559 to 1603, we see the Protestant church, or Kirk, being established in Scotland. The seventeenth century witnesses Scotland’s king, James VI, becoming James I, monarch of England and Ireland. Consequently, the 1600s marked a time of new horizons for the church in Scotland. The church, however, was forged on the anvil of suffering and built upon the martyr’s stake.
The Seed of the Martyrs, 1528–1558
The early church father Tertullian once remarked, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What was true in his day was true of the sixteenth century. Most people in Scotland followed the status quo when it came to religious practice and thought. The 1400s record only two martyrdoms in Scotland. These were of Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe.
In 1525, by official act of the Scottish Parliament, Luther’s ideas were deemed heretical. The act reads in part,
Forasmuch as damnable opinions of heresy are spread in diverse countries by the heretic Luther and his disciples, and this Realm and lieges have persisted in the Holy Faith since the same was first received by them . . . no manner of person, stranger, that happens to arrive with their ships within any part of this Realm shall bring with them any books or works of the said Luther.
In other words, “Scotland has been Roman Catholic, is Roman Catholic, and will be Roman Catholic.” It was as if a big red X was painted all over Luther and the Reformation solas. He and they would not be welcome in Scotland.
Luther’s books and “heretical opinions,” however, didn’t come in with strangers. They came in through Scotland’s very own Patrick Hamilton.
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.