History of the Scotch Church from the Introduction of Christianity to the Establishment of the Great Charter of the Church

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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THE Scotch was one of the most important elements which entered into the composition of the early Presbyterian churches of America. It possessed characteristics which were peculiar to itself, and which left a deep impress upon the new communities, of which it formed no inconsiderable part. Its piety was stern and uncompromising, for it had learned, through centuries of persecution, to dread both papal and prelatic error and usurpation. It had been forced to contend, in a hand-to-hand conflict, with these alternately dominant powers for the maintenance of the distinctive principles of its faith and order. Out of this protracted struggle it finally emerged with the three cardinal principles inscribed on its banner of loyalty to Christ as the true and only Head of the Church, the parity of the clergy, and the right of every congregation to a voice in the election of its officers. Of the truth and importance of these fundamental principles the Scottish Christians were so fully and firmly convinced that when necessity was laid upon them they did not shrink from sufferings, and even death itself, rather than renounce or betray their faith.

It is impossible now to determine when Christianity was first introduced into Scotland. The best authorities favor the belief that it was not later than the close of the second century, and that the first Christian ministers were men of singularly pure and holy lives. They mingled freely with the people, instructed them in the doctrines of God’s word, inculcated the duties of morality and virtue, endeavored to check all forms of vice and to soften the rough manners which then prevailed.

This condition of things, however, was not permitted to continue, even in a country so insulated as Scotland. The Church of Rome, which at an early period corrupted the simplicity of the Christian religion in the other countries of Europe, at length cast its baneful influence over the Scotch Church. There is reason to believe that as early as the fifth century the pope had taken measures to regulate the policy of the Scottish Church, and there is evidence that the inhabitants from this date acknowledged him as the head of the Church.

Popery, with its false doctrine, its superstitious rites and its persecuting spirit, with a wealthy and powerful hierarchy that had corrupted the whole spirit of religion, and with the people sunk in ignorance and debased by slavery, presented no ordinary difficulties to be surmounted by the Reformation, which began in Scotland in the sixteenth century. Germany and England had preceded it in a successful effort to free themselves from the oppression of the papal yoke. But when the doctrines of the Reformers were at length made known in Scotland, there were not wanting noble-minded men, who proved valiant defenders of the fundamental truths of the gospel, and who, in the contest with a corrupt and persecuting Church, were honored with the glorious crown of martyrdom.

Of these Patrick Hamilton, abbot of Ferne, was the first sufferer. Descended from an illustrious family and of noble blood, he had before him all the prospects of church preferment which could excite the ambition of an aspiring youth. He prosecuted his studies at St. Andrews, and subsequently visited Wittenberg and Marbourg, in Germany. There he held intercourse with Luther, Melanchthon and other German Reformers, and became convinced of the truth of their opinions and of the errors of the Church to whose ministry he had been destined by his parents. With the conviction that the Reformed doctrines were in accordance with the word of God, he felt it to be his duty to impart to his countrymen the knowledge he had acquired. Returning from the Continent in 1527, he entered with great zeal upon the duties of his ministry. He began at once to expose and to reprove the superstitious practices of the Romish Church in Scotland, and to preach the doctrine of free and complete justification by faith in Christ alone. His ministry drew multitudes around him, impressed by the power of his fervid appeals, while many embraced the truth to the saving of their souls. The message was not only new to them, but the earnestness and spirituality of the preacher contrasted powerfully with the carelessness and the vices of the mass of the priesthood.

Alarmed at the great success of the abbot’s preaching, the priests determined to silence him, if possible, by falsely accusing him of teaching heresy. Accordingly, the charge of “Lutheranism” was preferred against him and the entire enginery of their Church employed for his overthrow. Under pretence that the archbishop wished to consult him, Hamilton was enticed to visit St. Andrews, where Alexander Campbell, a Dominican friar, was appointed to insinuate himself into his confidence and to learn the real nature of the opinions which he entertained. These were immediately communicated to other prelates with every aggravation which malice could suggest. As soon as a tribunal of the clergy could be assembled they pronounced his views heretical; and having ineffectually exhorted him to abandon them, they condemned him to be burnt at the stake. With a cruelty having scarcely a parallel, on the same day upon which he had been condemned he was led forth to execution, and with true Christian heroism he suffered death before the gate of St. Salvator’s College.

The effects produced by this martyr’s death were very different from those which his persecutors desired. The terrible retribution that befell Campbell for his treachery and hypocrisy deepened greatly the impression made upon the people by the intrepid conduct of Hamilton as he was fastened to the stake and while the flames were kindling around him. Calling to his betrayer, he said, “O thou most iniquitous of men! who condemnest those things which thou knowest, and didst a few days before confess, to be true,[1] I summon thee to the tribunal of God!” These words never ceased to ring in the ears of the perfidious man, and he died a raving maniac. Fearing the influence upon the people of the severe and unjust execution of Hamilton, the prelates secured the subscription of those in authority as a sanction of the sentence. But all was in vain. The heart of the Scottish nation was deeply stirred. Men began to inquire as to the nature of the crime for which such punishment had been inflicted upon so noble a man, and they were led by a consideration of the doctrines fully to embrace them. Not a few persons began to question many things which they had never before doubted. Inquiry and discussion could not be excluded even from the University of St. Andrews, and impressions then made were never obliterated. Several of the friars began to hold and to preach doctrines savoring strongly of the Reformation, nor did they hesitate to expose the licentious and ungodly lives of the bishops and of the clergy.

All this very naturally alarmed and irritated Archbishop Beaton and his satellites, and they again resolved to try the effect of persecution to silence all opposers. A servant of the archbishop sagaciously advised him that if he burned any more to burn them in cellars; “for the smoke,” said he, “of Mr. Patrick Hamilton hath infected as many as it blew upon.” This advice, however, was not heeded. Other victims were imprisoned, and perished at the stake exhibiting a Christian heroism that scorned the flames. The mistaken and wicked policy of the prelates multiplied rather than repressed the number of those who adhered to the reform. Their corruption as well as their violence excited disgust and opposition. The vices of the clergy were not only a scandal to religion, but an outrage on common decency. Even the bishops were not ashamed to confess their ignorance of the Bible,[2] save what they had learned from their missals.

These persecutions under Archbishop Beaton were mainly instigated by his nephew, David Beaton, who, after his uncle’s death, in 1539, succeeded him in the office, and at the request of the king of France was raised by the pope to the rank of a cardinal. He was a man of talents, of unbounded ambition and of a cruel disposition. No sooner had he attained to his office than he began to employ the most rigorous measures to exterminate the Reformers and their doctrines. The better to accomplish his purpose, he endeavored in every way to ingratiate himself with King James V. and to secure for his favorites stations of dignity and power. And so far had he succeeded in his plans that at the death of the king, in 1542, it was found that he had already prepared and presented for his approval a list of some hundreds of persons of various ranks—not a few of them nobles and barons—who were suspected of heresy, and the confiscation of whose estates was urged as the means of replenishing the king’s coffers.

Defeated in this scheme by the king’s death and by the appointment of the earl of Arran as regent, the baffled cardinal only thirsted the more for vengeance upon the Reformers. An act of Parliament declaring it lawful for all persons to read the Scriptures in their native language, and by which thousands of copies of the sacred volume were brought into circulation, called forth his bitter hostility. He at once bent all his energies to acquire an ascendency over the weak and tickle regent, who was known to be favorable to the Reformed religion. With the aid of two other able and designing men, he succeeded only too well in his purpose, and the wily cardinal soon had all the authority he wished to imprison and put to death those suspected of sympathy with the Reformed faith. Like a chafed tiger thirsting for blood, he entered at once upon his murderous work. With barbarous cruelty he put five men and one woman to death at Perth. In company with the regent, to give the appearance of his sanction to the crimes, he made a bloody circuit through the kingdom, inflicting fines upon some, imprisoning others, and persecuting not a few unto death.

His most distinguished victim was the gentle, learned and pious George Wishart. Having been banished by the bishop of Brechin, Wishart resided for some years at the University of Cambridge. Returning from England in the year 1544, he commenced to preach the doctrines of the evangelical faith, and with such persuasive eloquence that he made a profound impression upon his large audiences. This was an unpardonable offence in the estimation of Beaton. Such a bold heretic could not be permitted to live in peace. Hunted from place to place as if he were a wild beast, he was finally betrayed into the hands of his persecutor by the earl of Both well. The cardinal summoned his prelatical council, and with much ostentation proceeded to the trial and condemnation of his victim. After a mock trial, which was but a series of insults, Wishart was sentenced to be burned on the following day as a heretic. The martyr met death with fortitude and holy boldness, forgiving his enemies and persecutors; but before he died he turned toward the cardinal, who was witnessing the execution from a window of the tower, and said, “He who in such state from that high place feedeth his eyes with my torments within a few days shall be hanged out at the same window, to be seen with as much ignominy as he now leaneth there in pride.” Only a few months passed before this prediction was fulfilled. Thus a death which seemed at the time the triumph of the cardinal’s power proved to be the knell summoning him to judgment. John Leslie, a brother of the earl of Rothes, headed a conspiracy, which surprised Beaton in the castle of St. Andrews and slew him in his own bed-chamber while pleading for mercy and crying, “I am a priest! I am a priest!” and without one word of repentance or prayer. And to allay a tumult caused by the attendants of the castle, and to assure the populace of his death, the cardinal’s dead body was exposed at the very window from which he had witnessed Wishart’s execution. So perished David Beaton, one of the most unscrupulous, treacherous, licentious and cruel prelates that ever cursed any country.

Though the destruction of this bold, bad man was regarded by a large part of the community as necessary in order to preserve civil and religious liberty, yet upon no Christian principle could such an act be justified. Its perpetrators were guilty of an infringement of the laws of the kingdom. But convinced as they were that the illegality of Wishart’s sentence had converted his death into murder, and that the civil power was unable or unwilling to punish the crime, they believed that they were doing God’s service and performing a patriotic deed in ridding their country of one of its worst enemies.

This misjudged act was calculated to keep alive the fierce spirit of the age, and to impede the progress of the cause it was intended to promote. While it was a warning to the persecutors of the Reformers, it alienated many good men, who were shocked at the illegal manner and the circumstances of the cardinal’s death. The warning, however, was disregarded by his successor, John Hamilton, who, when installed in office, adopted Beaton’s policy. Unable to wreak his vengeance upon the more prominent preachers of the Reformed faith, he seized an old priest of four-score years, Walter Mill, who had been accused of heresy in the days of his predecessor, but at the time had escaped. Being discovered by one of the archbishop’s spies, he was apprehended, brought to trial, and burnt at the stake. So great was the compassion felt for this venerable man, and such the horror awakened by this great outrage, that the archbishop was compelled to employ one of his own domestics, a dissolute fellow, as the executioner. As he expired in the flames the aged sufferer uttered these prophetic words: “I trust in God I shall be the last that shall suffer death in Scotland for this cause.” And he was the last victim the archbishop was permitted to sacrifice. “His death,” says Spottiswood, “was the death of popery in the realm.”

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[1] In his conference with Hamilton he had acknowledged the truth of the Reformed doctrines.

[2] Spottiswood, p 66.