Leonard Ravenhill once wrote, “spiritual expansion is expensive and at times excruciating”. This is true of both personal and corporate spiritual expansion. To grow as an individual, as a church, and as a nation requires a cost, and that cost can at times be excruciating to pay. The spiritual expansion of Scotland under the Reformation demanded both these elements; a high price and a painful transaction when paying it but it was these two elements alone that made the difference. Among those who paid this price was George Wishart, in many respects the forgotten forerunner of the Scottish Reformation.
As the historian, Wylie succinctly puts it “The main forces in Scotland…which weakened the Church of Rome,…were the reading of the Scriptures and the deaths of the martyrs”. The Reformation in Scotland began with the introduction of the Bible into the country in 1525 but it only gained momentum through the life and subsequent death of its first martyr Patrick Hamilton. He was the first to contribute to the spiritual expansion of his country in the era of the Reformation but he was not the last. Hamilton was martyred in February of 1528 and his death was like a lighted match being thrown into a can of gasoline; the fallout was enormous. One Scottish gentleman by the name of James Lindsay commented to the Archbishop of St. Andrews, James Beaton; “My Lord, if ye will burn any man, let him be burned in hollow cellars, for the smoke of Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it did blow upon”
Ten years after the death of Hamilton, James Beaton was succeeded by his nephew David Beaton, who was a particularly cruel and bloodthirsty man. However, for every martyr Beaton maliciously sacrificed at the stake, a small group of disciples rose up to fill his place. One such man was George Wishart.
Wishart was born around 1512 or 1513 and went on to become a teacher of Greek at a school in Montrose.
He was suspected of heresy and fled first to England where spent some time at Cambridge becoming friends with Hugh Latimer. Later he fled to Switzerland, spending three years there, finding refuge within Zurich and Geneva with the reformers Bullinger and John Calvin. Both these men helped Wishart to further crystallize his views of the gospel, thus preparing him for the work of the Reformation in Scotland. He then returned to England for a short period of time and taught at the University of Cambridge for a year between 1542 and 1543 before returning to Scotland in 1543 prepared to fulfill his calling as the forerunner of the Scottish Reformation.
Once back in Scotland, Wishart began to preach the gospel in Montrose and then later in Dundee. Drawing on the examples of Zwingli’s work in Zurich and Calvin’s in Geneva he opened the book of Romans and began to teach it chapter by chapter to the people. Piece by piece he assembled the gospel in the minds of his audience until it came together to form a single united picture. This method was perhaps the direct result of the time he spent with Calvin who was known for his systematic approach to interpreting Scripture. The result of this method of Bible study was phenomenal. It brought the truth home to the hearts of the people in a way that deeply impacted their spiritual experience.
Beaton soon got word of the work that Wishart was doing and also of the profound impact it was having on the minds of the people and he would sooner have conducted himself to the very gates of hell than allow Wishart to establish a stronghold of Protestantism on his doorstep.
He began to pursue him with vigor nearly capturing him while he was preaching on the book of Romans in Dundee and then on to Ayr with an entire army on hand to capture the one man. Wishart managed to evade him and travel throughout Scotland preaching to people wherever and whenever he had the opportunity to do so.
In 1545 Wishart had just departed from Dundee when the plague swept through the city. He immediately returned and ministered to the people of the city by caring for the sick and preaching the gospel. Wishart then met John Knox who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures of the Scottish Reformation. Knox started out as a bodyguard for Wishart, carrying a sword with him as he traveled.
In 1545 or 1546, Wishart was apprehended by Beaton’s men and thrown in the Seatower at St. Andrews. Knox wanted to go into captivity with the man who had become his friend and mentor but Wishart turned him back with the words “One is enough for a sacrifice”. He was tried and sentenced to death by burning at the stake when he was just 33 years old.
In his book “Why Revival Tarries” Leonard Ravenhill poignantly summarises one of the lessons we should take away from Wishart’s life and death. “Ah! brother preachers” he writes,” we love the old saints, missionaries, martyrs, reformers: our Luthers, Bunyans, Wesleys, Asburys etc. We will write their biographies, reverence their memories, frame their epitaphs, and build their cenotaphs. We will do anything except imitate them. We cherish the last drop of their blood, but watch the first drop of our own.” Spiritual growth is a costly business, may we be bold enough to embrace it completely in our youth.