The Scottish Reformation    -   An Overview.

The tragedy of Flodden Field on September 9 ,1513  not only destroyed James IV and his entourage but it had a disastrous effect on the growing economy. James V came to the throne a child of two years. The country was exposed to the selfish and cruel ambitions of the Hamiltons and the Douglasses  who were at the heart of the "Cleanse the Causeway" - bloody street fighting in Edinburgh in 1520. In this the Hamiltons were beaten and their leader  James Beaton Archbishop of St Andrews, fled to the sanctuary of the Black Friars. Decadence ran through both morals and religion, which clergy holding benefices seldom worked among their flock, or preached. Their absence was soon willingly filled by both the Black and Grey Friars who were to be seen everywhere, cathedral and church, administering  the services of the church.  It was now that the strains of Lutheranism began to be heard and led to the persecution and martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton. at the stake in 1527.  He was followed by David Straton and Norman Gourlay in 1534, and five others in 1550.The Scottish `pot was  thus bubbling away with virtual civil war,  lack of central leadership , economic failure, and poor harvests.  With religioun  served by the Friars, the scene was set for a groundswell of change.

It is perhaps offering a hostage to fortune to allege that the man in the street probably knows little of Presbyterianism or the Scottish Reformation. Unless a member of the Scottish church or kirk, he might  mention John Knox and John Calvin; perhaps he has heard of  Martin Luther and his Theses. Beyond that I venture that there is nowadays slight knowledge, and even less understanding, of  the turbulent years from ca. 1525 to 1690 in which the Reformation came to fruition.

The Scottish Reformation and the eventual ascendancy of Presbyterianism is sometimes portrayed very simplistically as arising from the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564),  a French theologian residing in Geneva, and the Scot John Knox (1514-1572) who was adherent of Calvin`s principles. The emergence of evangelism and a Protestant creed in Scotland was not an overnight event, however; nor did it originate solely with the fervour of John Knox fresh from Geneva. It was an evolutionary process  that had begun centuries before, probably with St Ninian in the fifth century, St Columba in the sixth century and the Culdees who survived until the thirteenth century before they were oppressed by Catholic rulers. The Roman form of Christianity was spread throughout the land by Augustine. In the fifteenth century small core groups such as the followers of John Wyckcliffe, the Lollards ,were making contact with one another, while in Scotland there was cross-border contact with English Protestants. Into this nascent Protestant church came John Knox who brought form and direction to the Scots’ evangelism. He was the catalyst that brought about action to establish a Protestant church in Scotland and therein Presbytery. 

The reformation of religion was spurred on by the likes of  John Craig, the Dominican monk, who found the ways of Rome unsavoury when he made a journey to Rome and was converted. At much the same time the Scottish poet, Sir David Lindsay was exercising great influence with his very popular poetry, including his presentation of  "Pleasant Satire  of the Three Estates, in commendation of Virtue  and vituperation of Vice". Row, in his History of the Kirk of Scotland,   comments  on the influence this work had on the popular mind :

For the more particular means  whereby many in Scotland got some knowledge of God`s truth in the time of darkness, there were some books set out, such as Sir David Lindsay`s poesie upon  the Four Monarchies, wherein other treatises are contained , opening up the abuses among the clergy at that time."

In 1553 the satire was acted out in the ampitheatre  of Perth, before King James V and his court.

"which made the people sensible  of the darkness wherein they lay, of the wickedness of the churchmen , and did let them see how God`s church should have been otherways guided than it was; all which did much good for that time."

The scene having been set, the Reformation of religion in Scotland began with three almost contemporaneous events. 

  • Firstly, it replaced  the Church of Rome (Roman Catholic Church) by Protestantism. 

  • Secondly, the people chose  Presbyterianism as their faith long before it and the official Church of Scotland was by law established. 

  • Thirdly, the French influence in the affairs of Scotland was broken.

In a very narrow sense the Reformation of religion in Scotland was all over by the autumn of 1560. 

 But there were other changes which bore an equally important part in the Reformation. These were the social and economic changes that had gathered pace through the latter part of the sixteenth century (earlier in Europe). The medieval Church was no longer the power behind the economy as  its lands and income were escheated to the Crown. The other great force, the nobility, were becoming more servile to the Crown as they found they could no longer subsist on their estates. Across the land as a whole the need for cash - money was becoming a reality. The changing structures of business, organisation and improvements in methods, on the other hand saw the economy expanding, along with peoples expectations, and a new social order had emerged in which the artisans and merchants controlled the Town Councils.  Moreover, the people were ready to throw off the shackles of Medieval Scotland and the `Nanny State` that had determined what work should be done, by whom, who could make what and the price it could be sold for, when to go to bed, what to eat and wear. etc. The support of the townspeople was critical to the reform of religion, and decisive to its immediate implementation.

Following the establishment of the Presbyterian faith as the choice of the people, there was a period, from 1560 to 1596, of relative tranquillity as the new Kirk bedded itself down and formulated its administration. Nothing is simple, however, for the Reformation was complicated by the politics of the day; particularly the ‘Divine Right’ policies of the Stuart Kings who wanted their choice of religion  (Episcopacy) and themselves as the Supreme head of the Church. There was stubborn dissension on grounds of conscience by some of the congregation; which was followed by the bloody sufferings of the strict Presbyterians known as the Covenanters. It was a further one hundred and thirty years after the initial change (1560)  before the Church of Scotland was established by law.

By the dawn of the seventeenth century there was an enormous rent in the Christian church that left a sensitive political balance between Protestant and Catholic states. The Protestant countries were Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Brandenburg, Prussia, England, Scotland, Ireland (even though the populace was essentially Catholic), and Holland. The Church of Rome held sway in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Spanish possessions in Belgium. Germany was divided both in regions and their sentiments; Switzerland was mainly Protestant and France, with a large Protestant population, turned its face to Rome.  The three creeds were essentially that of Rome; Luther and Melanchton with the Augsburg Confession; and Calvin. The Protestants were also quite well balanced with Lutheranism in the north - Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the greater part of the German states; and Calvinistic in Britain, Holland, Switzerland and France.

     The Reformation therefore spans the very busy and despotic reigns of Mary Queen of Scots; James VI/I who succeeded to the English throne in 1603 and became James I of England. He was the first king of Great Britain although political unity with Scotland did not finally happen until 1707. Thus he and his successors were rulers of three separate kingdoms each with their own laws and Parliaments. The successors of James VI  were Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James VII/II, and ends with the `Glorious Revolution`  and the accession of William and Mary.  Add to this pot the rule by Regents during the minority of the sovereign; the Catholic Counter Reformation and fear of wars with France, Spain, and Holland; the Plantation of Ulster and later rebellion in Ireland; the civil wars of the three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland; Oliver Cromwell’s campaigns in all three kingdoms; the Restoration and revenge of Charles II; the Catholic resurgence under James II; and continued persecution of the Presbyterians  and other `dissenters` in Scotland and Ulster, and you have a very complicated historical cocktail.

The Plantation of Ulster (1610-1630) is an integral part of the story of Presbyterianism as are also the later migrations of the Ulster Scots to the Colonies in America.  Oppressed and persecuted Scots migrated to Ulster in their thousands during and after the Ulster Plantation, and many were killed in the Rebellion of 1641. The Plantation was prompted by the flight of the Irish Earls in 1607 which created an opportunity for settlement of a Protestant community on the escheated lands. Land with affordable rents, and the bonus of some religious freedom, were very attractive to thousands of Scots. But by the early 1630s there was a parallel struggle for the rights of  Presbytery in Ireland and a resurgence of episcopacy. This was made worse by the hopes and aspirations of the indigenous Catholic population and resulted in the 1641 Rebellion. One view of that rebellion is that the Irish saw the Scots gaining some religious freedom through armed resistance (the Bishops Wars of 1639-40) and they, too, sought freedom by force, as well as wanting the return of  the lands seized in 1607.

 From Ulster, tens of thousands of Ulster Scots, mainly Presbyterians, migrated to the American colonies from the late seventeenth and through the eighteenth century. These migrants featured prominently in the development of the new lands and the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American. Through their experience they contributed directly to the Covenant we know as The Declaration of Independence. President Teddy Roosevelt, was a great-great-great-grandson on his mother’s side of the Rev. Alexander Stobo, a member of the ill-fated Darien Scheme  This was an attempt at building a colony on the Isthmus of Panama 1698-1700. The hope was to access trade in the West Indies and to transport goods from the Pacific overland to the Atlantic seaboard to European markets. It was a disaster and very nearly bankrupted Scotland.

 Roosevelt wrote in his book Episodes from the Winning of the West, that the Ulster Scots were 

...the kernel of the distinctively and intensely American stock who were the pioneers of our people in their march westward. The vanguard of the army of fighting settlers who with axe and rifle won this way from the Alleghanies to the Rio Grande and the Pacific.

  Over three hundred years later there is once again a Scottish Parliament with devolution of many powers to it from Westminster. With this devolution there is scope for Scottish aspirations and a sense of identity to grow. It would be appropriate if the strong traditions of a good education once more included in its syllabus an awareness of the suffering and sacrifices of the Scottish Reformation and its contribution to democracy.  Above all there is the earnest hope that the political partisans, the ecclesiastical schemers and the babblers of political correctness will let the Church alone; and that any attempt to interfere is defended by the people, to whom their Church belongs.

How familiar are the issues of the fifteenth and sixteenth century as the modern day State seeks to micro manage the affairs of the citizen, often through unelected bodies, determining what ought or ought not be eaten, or seen in advertisements, and the choice whether a person might smoke (although cynically too glad of the revenue from tobacco to declare it a prohibited substance). To this they add the political correctness of a grotesque minority who declare what nationality we should be (one can not be of English birth in a Census) and  what people may think and say in their perception of society. Deja vu no less -   History warns us against the erosion of freedom, and modern satirist/writers such as George Orwell, warn of the world of the Big Brother State. The seeds of Revolution are again being sowed.



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