The Reformation in Scotland

What we find about the Reformation in Scotland depends not only on what happened, but on what we are looking for. It helps to know what questions we have and why are they important to us.

Our values also make a difference

This is different from firing ourselves up with stories of the heroic supporters of our point of view, but it is about having a Christian faith that sees God's grace in some unexpected quarters.

It means that we respect the participants in the drama, all of whom we can expect to be flawed, and many of whom are people of faith and principle despite their different visions of what it is to serve Christ. We will see how good things come out of messy times. We may even have more confidence about how we engage with conflict in our own time, and how we can expect God to again be taking us somewhere deeper in our understanding.

Different "maps" of what was going on

In these layers of powerful forces for change, Reformed Christianity is associated with distinct elements in most of them.

Michael Lynch "Reformation" in the Oxford Companion to Scottish History.

The Reformation in Scotland is dated in 1560, even though its roots go back much further, because in that year those supporting Reformed Christianity gained power, the Scots Confession was accepted by Parliament and the First Book of Discipline was drawn up.  Michael Lynch of the University of Edinburgh has used questions about the speed of change (rapid or slow) and the whether it was a populist movement from below or an elitist change implemented from above as historical devices to highlight some of the social complexities of what was going on.

He makes this observation:

"The Scottish Reformation was the last national Reformation in Europe. There are sharply differing views as to its roots, its chief characteristics, its successes and its failures. ... One presbyterian historian, arguing that it was 'radical' and 'innovative', set out the following agenda, based on changes in doctrine and worship: 'In worship out went Latinity, sacerdotalism, altars, the cult of Mary and the saints ...'. How satisfactory is that as an agenda? What does it leave out?

Gordon Donaldson, a distinguished Episcopalian historian, citing the lack of a test act or act of uniformity such as there was in England, has argued, basing his case largely on the church as an institution, that the Reformation was distinguished by its 'moderation'. But what was moderate and what was immoderate about it?

Others, taking a long view of the process of evangelisation, stressing the inadequacy of early provision at parish level and the variability of local reformations, have argued that genuine conversion, as distinct from mere conformity, often took three or four generations to achieve. But is that an unreasonably demanding benchmark of success and failure?"

A Rapid Reformation from Below

Luther's writings found their way into Scotland, particularly St Andrews University from the 1520s. By 1552 the authorities believed they had the situation under control and the flame of heresy snuffed out - Hamilton and Wishart had been executed, John Knox and other supporters of the murder of Cardinal Beaton in St Andrews had been captured and sent to France, but by 1555 there was a fresh upsurge. Knox had been released and visited in the winter of 1555 and "privy kirks" found in Edinburgh, Dundee and elsewhere. A group calling itself "Lords of the Congregation of Christ" formed in 1557 a band, bond, or covenant against the old church and the catholic queen regent, Mary of Guise. In September 1558 a protestant demonstration broke up the St Giles Day procession and drowned the statue of the saint in the local loch. After Knox preached in Perth in 1559 a riot destroyed statues and images. In June the Congregation took over the parish church in St Andrews whitewashed the walls, pulled down the altar, communion rails, choir stalls, organ and statues and side altars, providing a pulpit for Knox to preach on Jesus expelling the money lenders from the temple.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, supporter of the decency and order of the Elizabethan Settlement in England saw Scotland as a place where "the people are the orderers of things."

By August 1560, Mary Guise was dead, the French troops had gone, a parliament of 100 lairds from around Scotland had banned the Catholic mass, the jurisdiction of the pope, and given authority to the Scots Confession.

When the Queen Mary returned to Scotland a year later, Protestant demonstrators tried to break into her private chapel to stop the mass, her official welcome was charged with Protestant symbolism, and she faced a daunting series of encounters with Knox as her private life became a shambles and she was deposed in 1567.

A Rapid Reformation from Above

This largely depends on where you draw the line between "below" and "above". The Reformation in Scotland was below the line of the royal family, but it did include nobles and lairds. The mob may have taken over in riots and demonstrations against the old order, but the real leadership was from the magistrates and lairds. The "Congregation" were from the landed classes, the Reformation parliament was orchestrated by leading nobles who commissioned Knox to draw up the Reformation documents. They rejected what he wrote about their role, remained in control and were the ones who organised the deposition of Mary. The First Book of Discipline was only partially adopted.

More radical reformers wanted an Act of Uniformity for clergy and a Test Act to require office holders in church and state, including law lords and school teachers, to subscribe to the Confession; they also want the transfer the property of the old church to the new. The Test Act took till 1573, the Act of Uniformity till the 1580s and the wholesale transfer of land never happened. The old elites remained pretty much in control. There is something to be said for a rapid Reformation from above.

A Slow Reformation from Above?

At a deeper level things moved more slowly. There were about 1100 parishes in Scotland. By 1562 about a quarter had Protestant ministers, and by 1567 about three-quarters. By 1574 about 1000 of the 1100 were in Reformed hands, though 75% of these were Readers unable to administer communion. A monthly sermon and an annual communion would have been common. Paying for clergy remained a problem.

Allegiances were mixed. Aberdeen only got a Kirk session when the Protestant privy council surrounding the Queen came on a royal visit in 1562, even then the session were mostly Catholic. In the late 1580s about a third of the Scottish nobles were still Catholic. There was change, there was also substantial continuity. As society changed economically new groups developed, and new instruments of social control, including Kirk sessions. Major concerns were marriage, ante-nuptial fornication and sexual issues.

A Slow Reformation from Below?

Things took a while. In 1582 John Durie, an Edinburgh minister, returned from exile to be greeted by a crowd of 2000 singing Psalm 124 "Now Israel may say and that truly" - still sung at General Assemblies - but one question is why did it take two decades for such signs of spontaneous new faith to emerge? Yet it is only to be expected that it took generations "for the aspiration of the few to become the conviction of the many".

Success and failure

Lynch believes that it succeeded most where it changed things least. "Where the Reformation reinforced existing habits and institutions, it succeeded most readily. The kirk session was the partner of the new central law courts and the local baron court. But where it make decisive and violent changes, the Reformation usually failed, at least to begin with." The communion token and the catechism were the symbols and tools of the new moral order, not until the 1630s were Bibles much available or affordable. The new Scottish world was one of an intrusive and authoritarian Kirk closely linked to the State whose authority it frequently challenged. It may have been a noble vision to ensure that the Lordship of Christ over life and society was a reality not just an ideal, but the means created to achieve the vision produced tensions. "The script for much of the internal dissent, schism and reunions which so marked the history of Scottish Protestantism was already written in outline."