In mediaeval Europe, various ‘nonconformist’ groups emerged, such as the Bogomils, Cathars, Albigenses and Waldensians.
There were also individuals who tried to make a difference from within the Catholic church. Marsilius of Padua (1270-1342) was one. He held almost pure Protestant teaching. Such teaching was spreading like wildfire among students in the universities, among priests who were persuaded to read the Bible for themselves, and among those laity who saw the degeneracy of the Roman Church.
Dissemination of the truth
John Wycliffe (1324-1384) headed a group called Lollards, who influenced many in mainland Europe and Britain. His message was based on God’s truth, not man’s. That message was carried by students from Oxford to Bohemia, and influenced Jan Hus in Praha and Paul Craw of Poland.
Hus openly taught what he learned from Wycliffe’s students and brought the Bible before men, 150 years before Luther. Craw went to Scotland and, in 1433, was burned at the stake as a heretic, with a brass ball in his mouth, so that he would not be able to speak a word for his Saviour.
Hus, who name means ‘goose’, was burned at the stake. It was said that the smell of this ‘burning goose’ would drift over Europe and infect many with his teaching. More and more individuals were influenced by the truth of God that had been translated into their own language. To learn that neither pope nor king, but Christ alone, was head of the church, was a truth worth dying for.
Many Scottish students were to be found in continental universities, and they heard and discussed and then spread the ideas of Wycliffe and Hus. When Luther was used of God, in 1517, to nail his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, he was indicating that he was willing to debate the issues with anyone.
That action unleashed a flow of men from within the Roman church who would stand by God’s Word. Many of Luther’s books were smuggled into Britain. The mediaeval church leaders thought this flood of heretical teaching so bad that, in 1527, the Scottish parliament passed a law ‘to keep Scotland clean of all such filth and heresy’.
First Protestant minsters and martyrs
But yet, from within the Roman church, there were priests who began to discuss and embrace these teachings. A few of them were to become the first Protestant ministers and martyrs.
Patrick Hamilton, who was related to the royal family of Scotland, studied in Paris and Louvain. Here he was influenced by Erasmus, before he returned to teach at St Andrew’s University in Scotland and present these new ideas from the Bible.
For his safety, he travelled to that great centre of evangelical religion, Marburg, for a while. Some of the results of his study of the Bible were published in Latin. His little treatise, Patrick’s places, became known and loved.
Following Paul, Hamilton taught that it is Christ alone who can save; that we must believe in Christ’s mercy to forgive us; and trust in Christ’s death that atones for our sins, as we accept the loving offer of God’s grace.
Hamilton returned to Scotland in 1527, but less than a year later, on 29 February 1528, he was put to death by the church and burned over a fire of wet wood — a slow, horrible death. He had left his few clothes to his servant, all that he had, and carried his much-loved Bible to his death.
The effect of the death of this blameless young man was great. The archbishop who had condemned him was warned that, if he burned any more, then he should do it in a low cellar, ‘because the reik [smoke] of Maister Patrick Hamilton had infected many’.
Others died or fled as persecution spread. One such was Alexander Alane (Alesius). He had tried to persuade Hamilton to give up his faith, but was himself converted to Christ. Back in Scotland, the persecution and death of many continued. The smell of the burning of Hamilton touched many, who began to think for themselves, as they were willing to study God’s Word and accept God’s challenge to think through what God said.
The five solas of God’s Word are Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone and the glory of God alone. These essentials, the church before the Reformation sought to hide, but their suppression and the consequent oppression is what the Reformers resisted.
The question is still the same today, as each of us battles with the reformation of our own thinking and living, and the reform of the church: were the first Reformers right and the rest of the church wrong?
Sinful human reasoning tells us there is no God and there can be no ultimate truth. If that is so, then we can do whatever we think is right or true. A young Puerto Rican expelled from the USA found himself in a Sunday school class in Switzerland, where he was terrorising the young children and their teacher, slamming a bicycle chain repeatedly on the table.
The pastor persuaded him to let the children and teacher go. The lad asked, ‘Why shouldn’t I wrap this around the neck of an old lady, if I want to?’ He was told, ‘There is no reason why you should not do that, if there is no God. We can each of us believe what we want, if there is no God. We can each of us do what we believe is “right”, if there is no God.
We can each of us live by our own ever-changing truth, if God does not exist and has not given us the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. That, in a nutshell, is what the Reformation was and is all about: the reform of our thinking, the reshaping of our life and churches, according to the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.
The challenge remains: are we reformed and being reformed? Are we happy to have our living, thinking, listening, watching, drinking, the way we treat girls or boys, the real us, measured by the truth of God in the Scriptures? Or do we trust our own ideas of ‘truth’, even though it gives us no peace?
I have a letter at home written by a young girl in Praha soon after Easter 1971. In it she writes in remarkably good English, but not as a native speaker. Born in a communist, God-denying country and taught in its educational system, she wrote, ‘We are taught the God does not exist’.
A British person would have written, ‘We are taught that God does not exist’. By her ‘happy’ mistake, she used the definite article to underline the fact that there is one God, ‘the God’.
Or, as our Lord Jesus Christ himself tells us: ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ (John 17:3). The Reformation is all about the Bible, God and me.
When Princess Victoria was just a girl of 18 and was told that she was now queen, it is recorded that her first words were, ‘Then I must be good’. Goodness comes only from the saving grace of God in our hearts, which is then lived out in our lives.
God says to his children: ‘Lo, I am with you always’; ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness’.
Rev. William B. Scott, of the Free Church (Continuing), regularly visited Eastern Europe from 1971 until 1998, preaching in many different churches. He had a break from these visits when he and his wife served as missionaries in Peru