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Patrick Hamilton: first Scottish Reformation martyr (1)

June 2018 | by Roger Fay

Patrick Hamilton
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St Andrews in Scotland is today famous for its golf course and the magnificent beach that featured in the film Chariots of Fire. Its university is famous as the place where Prince William and Kate Middleton met.

In the sixteenth century, St Andrews was the seat of power for the Catholic church in Scotland and boasted the supposed relics of its patron saint, namely an arm, three fingers, a kneecap and a tooth!

On the cobblestones near St Salvator’s College the initials ‘PH’ are engraved, and not far away the initials ‘GW’. These stand for Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, and mark the places of their execution as Protestant martyrs.

For centuries students have avoided stepping on the initials for fear of failing their final exams — the only remedy being to run into the North Sea at dawn on the first day of May!

Patrick Hamilton was martyred in 1528, at the age of 24; George Wishart died 18 years later (through Wishart’s preaching, John Knox was converted). Previous martyrdoms in Scotland were those of the Lollards James Resby and Paul Craw about a century beforehand. Craw died with a ball of brass in his mouth to stop him exhorting onlookers.

Early life

Patrick Hamilton was born into a noble Scottish family in 1504. His father was nephew to King James IV of Scotland and his mother a granddaughter of James II. With such royal connections, he became Abbot of Fearn when only 14 years old. This appointment was typical of corrupt mediaeval Catholic religion, where ecclesiastical office was regularly used in wealth-creating, political patronage.

In 1520 (three years after Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses at Wittenberg) Hamilton used his income to travel to Paris, where he studied at the College of Montaigu. Here he graduated with an MA and was strongly attracted to renaissance humanism. It seems that here too he was exposed to Lutheran ideas since the university was in ferment over the teaching of Luther and Melanchthon.

When he returned to St Leonards College in St Andrews, in 1523, to join its faculty of arts, he was a humanist, moral reformer and lover of ancient literature. He was also critical of church corruptions, but not yet a Lutheran; it was at this time that he composed a choral mass in honour of the angels.

It’s not known exactly how or when Patrick was converted, but these were years when numbers of Luther’s books were smuggled into Scotland’s eastern ports, often hidden in bales of cloth — in 1525 the 14-year-old King James V banned these ‘damnable opinions of heresy’. Other merchants were importing and selling Tyndale’s English New Testament — a writing ‘recently invented by Martin Luther’, some monks declared!

By 1526 Patrick, aged 23, was openly preaching Lutheran doctrine, and when Archbishop James Beaton summoned him to St Andrews, he fled to Wittenberg along with two friends, where he remained for six months.

Patrick’s Places

According to John Knox, Hamilton met Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg. He then travelled on to Marburg and joined Francis Lambert — a Franciscan monk converted through Luther’s writings and in charge of the theological faculty at the Protestant University of Marburg.

Lambert encouraged Hamilton to commit his new theological convictions to writing, and the result was a treatise, later entitled Patrick’s Places and translated from Latin into English by John Frith in 1532. It can today be read in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and is available on the internet.

The title Patrick’s Places includes the word ‘places’, because it ‘treateth of certain common places, which known, ye have the pith of all divinity’. Patrick’s Places is a brief, pungent summary of the gospel of grace. It was the earliest Reformation writing in Scotland, said at one time to be the most read book in Scotland next to the Bible. It deals with justification by faith alone, with the distinction between law and gospel, and with the place of good works.

The treatise begins by explaining the law of God as set out in the Ten Commandments and Two Great Commandments. It emphasises that it is impossible for people to keep the moral law: God gave us the law only to show us that we are incurably evil and that we cannot make ourselves good. ‘The law does nothing but command’; only the gospel can make us good.

Hamilton highlights that justification is only by faith. He recounts an imaginary ‘disputation’ between law and gospel: ‘The law saith: pay thy debt; thou art a sinner desperate; and thou shalt die. The gospel saith: Christ hath paid it; thy sins are forgiven thee; be of good comfort, thou shalt be saved.

‘The law saith: make amends for thy sin; the Father of heaven is wroth 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’.

Faith in Christ

Hamilton shows that the gospel centres on Jesus Christ, who is set forth in the Bible’s promises: ‘Christ is the Saviour of the world. Christ is our Saviour. Christ died for us. Christ died for our sins. Christ offered himself for us. Christ bear our sins upon his back. Christ bought us with his blood. Christ washes us with his blood. Christ came into the world to save sinners…

‘Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our wisdom. Christ is our sanctification. Christ is our redemption. Christ is our satisfaction. Christ is our goodness. Christ hath pacified the Father of heaven. Christ is ours, and all his. Christ hath delivered us from the law, from the devil and hell. The Father of heaven hath forgiven us for Christ’s sake’.

Our response must be to believe the gospel. The alternative responses of unbelief, or faith in one’s own good works, are deeply insulting to God: ‘He that thinketh to be saved by his works, calleth himself Christ. For he calleth himself a saviour, which appertaineth to Christ only. What is a saviour, but he that saveth? And thou sayest, I save myself; which is as much to say as, I am Christ’.

With these burning convictions, Hamilton returned to Scotland in autumn 1527 and, heedless of danger, began preaching the truth, starting at his elder brother’s house near Linlithgow. Members of his own family were converted, including his brother and his sister Katherine.

Among the converts was a young woman of noble rank converted on the spot by his preaching. She and Patrick were soon married. Very little is known about her, not even her name. Their child, Isabel, was born after Hamilton’s death. The marriage was, in effect, a public renunciation of Hamilton’s clerical celibacy.

St Andrews Cathedral
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Beaton knew he needed to tread carefully if he was to take drastic action against someone of royal connection. So he decided to give Hamilton the space to incriminate himself with his own words. He invited him to St Andrews for discussion.

Hamilton knew his life was in great danger, but was determined to go. He arrived in St Andrews in mid-January 1528 and used to the full the opportunity he had in debating and preaching. It proved a time of blessed ministry among the monks of various orders, among university students and teachers. In the meantime, King James V was encouraged by the clergy to go on a pilgrimage to Ross-shire, so as to put distance between the king and his young relative.

After a month Beaton swooped. Early on the morning of 29 February 1528, Hamilton was arrested and brought to trial at the cathedral. The council trying Hamilton was packed with bishops, clergy and university dignitaries and was presided over by Beaton. Hamilton was charged with 13 ‘heretical’ articles, seven on justification by faith and the others on such subjects as purgatory, confession and the pope as antichrist.

Hamilton answered that several articles were ‘disputable points, but such as he could not condemn unless he saw better reasons than yet he had heard’; but he affirmed that the first seven points were undoubtedly true, ‘to which he was prepared to set his hand’.

The seven points were that: the corruption of sin remains in children after their baptism; no man, by the power of his free will, can do any good; no man is without sin so long as he lives; every true Christian may know himself to be in a state of grace; a man is not justified by works, but by faith only; good works make not a good man, but a good man does good works; and faith, hope, and charity are so linked together that he who has one of them has them all, and he that lacks one lacks them all.

To be concluded

Roger Fay is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and an elder of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.

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