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The Scottish Reformation
Chapter II.—The Wishart Period, a. d. 1543—1554.
Section 1. Life of George Wishart to 1543


When the commissioners sent by the Scottish Parliament to London to negotiate the marriage of Edward and Mary returned to Scotland, in July, 1543, they brought home with them an exiled countryman, whom Knox has characterised in the following glowing terms: "A man of such graces, as before him were never heard within this realm, and are rare to be found yet in any man, notwithstanding the great light of God that since his days has shined unto us; a man singularjy learned, as well in godly knowledge as in all honest human science." Such was George Wishart—with whose return to Scotland at this date, commences the Wishart period of the Scottish Reformation.

Neither the place nor the date of his birth has been recorded, but he was probably born at the house of Pitarrow, in the Mearns, about the year 1513. The family of the Wisharts of Pitarrow was ancient and honourable, and had produced several eminent men for the service of the church and the state. Sir James Wishart, the father of the reformer, was a man of ability and learning, and held for ten years—between 1513 and 1524 —the high judicial office of Lord Justice Clerk. The house of Pitarrow stood at no great distance from the ancient church of St Palladius, in the beautiful Glen of Fordoun, and George Wishart must have been early familiar with the popular superstitions connected with the shrine and the holy well of that long-honoured saint So recently as the days of Archbishop Shevez, the relics of St. Paldy, as he was popularly called, had been deposited in a silver shrine by that prelate upon occasion of his making a pilgrimage to the sacred spot—a proof that the worship of the saint was still flourishing in the reign of James the Third.

The place of Wishart's education is not certainly known, but may be conjectured with great probability to have been King's College, Aberdeen. It is known that he had acquired early in life a knowledge of the Greek tongue, and King's College was the only university in Scotland at that time, where such an accomplishment could be obtained. He was early associated in these humanising studies with John Erskine of Dun, who had the honour of being one of the first promoters of Greek learning in Scotland. The two families of Dun and Pitarrow were near neighbours, and were allied by intermarriage. Young Erskine and Wishart grew up together from childhood; a connexion which was afterwards closely cemented by the intellectual and religious congeniality of their riper years.

Wishart was an instance of what was then no uncommon occurrence in Europe, viz. for noblemen, and the sons of noblemen, to devote themselves to the task of classical instruction. Erskine had resolved, as Provost of Montrose, to introduce the teaching of Greek into the grammar school of that ancient burgh, and he found an able and zealous teacher in his friend and fellow-student Wishart was engaged for some years in that useful office; and it is a curious fact that even after he had reached the more exalted honours of a great preacher, and a venerated martyr, he still continued to be spoken of, at least in that district of the country, as "the Schoolmaster of Montrose."

Unfortunately for the first Greek grammar school in Scotland, it was then considered a heresy by the bishops to teach Greek, and particularly the Greek Testament, which was Wish-art's text book. In 1538, the schoolmaster was summoned by John Hepburn, Bishop of Brechin, to answer to such a charge. David Beaton, as we have seen, was then Chief Inquisitor of the kingdom, and took care that all the bishops of his province should imitate his own example of unrelenting bigotry. But Wishart, though a zealous Grecian, did not think it his duty to suffer martyrdom for the teaching of Greek, and wisely consulted his safety by withdrawing into England.

We next meet with him in Bristol, in the following year, 1539, engaged as a public lecturer and preacher in several of the churches of that city. The Deanery of Bristol was at that time a part of the diocese of Worcester, and Latimer was then the bishop of the see; and, in the absence of any other explanation of the curious fact that the Scottish exile should turn up as a lecturer there, the conjecture may be allowed, that he had been recommended by one or other of his numerous fellow-exiles to the zealous Protestant bishop, and that Latimer had given him a faculty to preach in his diocese.

However this may have been, there is evidence of the most authentic kind for a singular fact connected with Wishart's sojourn in Bristol, which was left unrecorded by all our early historians ; and which, though referred to by several writers of our own time, has never hitherto been set in a correct light While at Bristol, Wishart was publicly accused and convicted of setting forth doctrines which were heretical, in the sense of being not merely opposed to the teaching of the Romish Church, but to the teaching and truth of the Word of God. The following record of this fact is found entered in "The Mayor's Calendar" of Bristol; a very ancient volume, in which have been chronicled for centuries the names of the municipal authorities of the city, and occasional incidents which occurred during the successive mayoralties.

"30. Henry VIII. That this year, the 15 May, a Scot, named George Wysard, set furth his lecture in St Nicholas Church of Bristowe, the most blasphemous heresy that ever was herd, openly declarying that Christ nother hath nor coulde merite for him, nor yet for us; which heresy brought many of the commons of this town into a great error, and divers of them were persuaded by that heretical lecture to heresy. Whereupon, the said stiff-necked Scot was accused by Mr. John Kerne, deane of the said diocese of Worcester, and soon after he was sent to the most reverend father in God, the Archbishop of Canterbury, before whom and others, that is to signify, the Bishops of Bath, Norwich, and Chichester, with others as doctors; and he before them was examined, convicted and condemned in and upon the detestable heresy above mentioned; whereupon, he was injoyned to bere a fagot in St Nicholas church aforesaid, and the parish of the same, the 13 July, anno fore-mentioned ; and in Christ church and parish thereof, the 20 July, abovesaid following; which injunction was duly executed in aforesaid."

The acccuray of this original record is confirmed by the following letter from the Mayor of Bristol, for the year 1539, which is still extant among the papers of Lord Cromwell, to whom it was addressed.

"Pleaseth it your honourable lordship to be advertised, that certain accusations are made and had by Sir John Kerell, Dean of Bristowe, deputy of the Bishop of Worcester, our ordinary, and by divers others, inhabitants of Bristowe foresaid, against one George Wischarde, a Scottishman born, lately being before your honourable lordship. Which accusations the said Dean and other inhabitants aforesaid have presented before me the mayor of Bristowe, and justices of peace; and the same accusations I have received, sending the same unto your said honourable lordship; and furthermore, the chamberlain and the Dean of Bristowe shall signify unto your honourable lordship, the very truth in the premises, unto whom we shall desire you to give credence. And thus our Lord preserve your honourable lordship in health and wealth, according unto your own heartiest desire. At Bristowe, the ix day of June, Anno Regis Henrici VIII, xxxi.

Be me Thomas Jeffryis, Mayor of Brystowe. It does not admit of a doubt then, that Wishart had fallen at this early period of his life, while his views of divine truth were still immature, into some serious misapprehension on the subject of the merits of Christ, and the way of human redemption. If the popish churchmen of Bristol had been his only judges, we might have been justified in receiving with hesitation so strange an accusation, because he was no doubt even then a vigorous opponent of popish doctrines; and it was, probably, his zeal in attacking the doctrine of mediatory merit in the case of the Romish saints, which carried him into the heretical extreme of denying the mediatory merit of the Redeemer himself. But as he was sent up to London to be tried by a tribunal over which Cranmer presided, it is only fair to conclude that the sentence which that tribunal pronounced upon him was just. If the Protestant preacher had been misunderstood or calumniated by his enemies, the Protestant archbishop would have protected him from their malice. Wishart himself acknowledged the justice of the sentence, by publicly recanting his error in the very churches where he had promulgated it.

But this account of Wishart's conduct at Bristol is very different from the version of it which has hitherto been current It has long been supposed that what Wishart preached against there, was the mediatory merit of the Virgin Mary, and that what he publicly recanted twice over was the Protestant doctrine upon that subject, a doctrine which he no doubt believed to be true and scriptural at the very time he was supposed to have ignominiously recanted it The difficulty of accounting for Cranmer's condemnatory sentence, was, upon this supposition, insuperable; and equally so was the difficulty of vindicating the conduct of the Reformer in publicly declaring to be false, what he could not but know to be the truth of God. Still, the record in "The Mayor's Calendar" was thought to be decisive upon the point But it is now ascertained that this reading of the Calendar was an entire mistake; and curiously enough, a serious misunderstanding of history, which has now been current for nearly half a century, is found to have arisen from the misreading of a single word, nay, of a single letter of the original chronicle.

The incident, thus cleared of misapprehension, leaves the character of the Reformer for sincerity and fortitude without a stain. It reveals indeed the unripeness of his views of Gospel truth at that early period of his life; he had fallen into a serious error of judgment, and he had incurred just censure for rashly proclaiming so dangerous an error to the uninstructed multitude. But he now stands acquitted of all imputation upon his firmness and integrity. When Cranmer and his other judges condemned him to abjure his error at their bar, he honestly abjured it When he publicly recanted it at Bristol, his recantation was sincere. It was an error which he recanted, not a truth. Instead of diminishing our admiration ot his heroism as a confessor of the faith, the incident enhances it; for it shows that he was as ready to brave the ignominy of a public recantation in the interest of truth, as he afterwards showed himself prepared to suffer the disgrace and the horror of a heretic's death, in the same service.

If Wisharfs views of divine truth were still somewhat unsettled upon some important points, and he had not yet learned to draw accurately the lines of distinction between Scripture truths and Rome's corruptions of them, it was a happy arrangement of Providence which led him, on leaving England, in 1540, to visit the Reformed Churches of Switzerland These Churches were now far advanced in Christian knowledge and life. When prematurely bereaved of Zwingle and CEcolampadius, they had found a worthy successor to these great and good men in Henry Bullinger; and Bullinger, building upon the foundations which his predecessors had laid, in the same spirit as the founders, had raised up a goodly fabric of Church discipline and order, which was the admiration of evangelical visitors from all the Reformed countries of Europe.

The First Helvetic Confession became the subject of Wish-art's careful study, during his sojourn in the Cantons; and he gave an unmistakeable proof of his approbation of its teaching, by executing a translation of it into his mother-tongue* Nor is it difficult to trace the influence of that Confession in his subsequent public teaching. The great prominence which he was wont to give on all occasions to the Word of God, as the only legitimate source and standard of Christian truth, corresponded exactly with the spirit of the Swiss Confession; and no less so did the distinctness and decision of his doctrine on the subject of the Sacraments. In a word, the effect of his visit to Switzerland seems to have been to give to his theological views the characteristics of the Helvetic type of doctrine, as distinguished from the German or Lutheran type; and this fact had an important influence in the long run, upon the Confessional characteristics of the Reformed Scottish Church.

It was during his sojourn on the Continent that an incident occurred, which he afterwards referred to, shortly before his martyrdom. "I once chanced," said he, "to meet with a Jew when I was sailing upon the waters of Rhine. I inquired of him what was the cause of his pertinacie, that he did not believe that the true Messiah was come, considering that they had seen all the prophecies which were spoken of him, to be fulfilled ; moreover, the prophecies taken away and the sceptre of Judah. By many other testimonies of the Scripture I vanquished him, and approved that Messiah was come—-the same which they called Jesus of Nazareth. The Jew answered again unto me, 'When Messiah cometh, He shall restore all things, and He shall not abrogate the Law which was given to our fathers, as ye do. For why? We see the poor almost perish through hunger among you, yet you are not moved with pity towards them; but among us Jews, though we be poor, there are no beggars found Secondarily, it is forbidden by the Law to faine any kind of nagery of things in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the sea under the earth, but one God only to honour; but your sanctuaries and churches are full of idols. Thirdly, a piece of bread baken upon the ashes ye adore and worship, and say that it is your god/ " These Jewish censures upon the practice of Christendom, appear to have made a deep impression upon Wishart. He never forgot them. He used to refer to them in his preaching, as a proof of the bad impression which was made upon the minds of unbelievers, by the use of images in Christian worship, and by the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence ; and it is not improbable that words which he quoted so often as a lesson to others, may have made some salutary impression, when he first heard them, upon himself. It is certain that Wishart became, in his own person, an eminent instance of that humane concern for the poor, with the want of which the Jew reproached the Christian world at large; and no less so of that zeal against religious u imagery" and bread-worship, of which the latter had set him so fervent an example.

Having returned to England, probably late in 1541, Wishart repaired to Cambridge, and took up his residence in Corpus Christi, or Bene't College. It was no time to think of returning to Scotland, for the Cardinal was still at the pinnacle of his despotic power. But there were many devout students of the Word of God in the colleges of Cambridge; and there, amidst studious shades, and in the enjoyment of the society of men of congenial spirit, he could wait for the arrival of better times for his persecuted country.

He went to Cambridge, however, not only to study, but to teach; and among his pupils there was one Emery Tylney, who conceived for him the deepest veneration and love. To this affectionate scholar we are indebted for an account of his person, character, and habits of life, which, for its minuteness of detail, and graphic truth of description, is of great biographical value. It was contributed by Tylney, many years afterwards, to Fox's Book of Martyrs, and it was well worthy of a place in that great gallery of Christian worthies.

"About the year of our Lord one thousand five hundred forty and three, there was in the university of Cambridge one Maister George Wishart, commonly called Maister George of Bennet's College, who was a man of tall stature, polled-headed, and on the same a round French cap of the best. Judged of melancholy complexion by his physiognomy, black-haired, long-bearded, comely of personage, well-spoken after his country of Scotland, courteous, lowly, lovely, glad to teach, desirous to learn, and was well travelled; having on him for his habit or clothing, never but a mantle, frieze gown to the shoes, a black Milan fustian doublet, and plain black hosen, coarse new canvas for his shirts, and white falling bands and cuffs at the hands, all the which apparel he gave to the poor; some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly, as he liked, saving his French cap, which he kept the whole year of my being with him. He was a man modest, temperate, fearing God, hating covetousness, for his charity had never end, night, noon, nor day; he forbore one meal in three, one day in four for the most part, except something to comfort nature; he lay hard upon a puff of straw, coarse new canvas sheets, which, when he changed, he gave away. He loved me tenderly, and I him for my age, as effectually. He taught with great modesty and gravity, so that some of his people thought him severe, and would have slain him, but the Lord was his defence. And he, after due correction for their malice, by good exhortation amended them, and he went his way. O that the Lord had left him to me his poor boy, that he might have finished that he had begun! For in his religion he was, as you see here, in the rest of his life, when he went into Scotland with divers of the nobility that came for a treaty to King Henry VIII. His learning was no less sufficient than his desire; always prest and ready to do good in that he was able, both in the house privately and in the schools publicly, professing and reading divers authors. If I should declare his love to me and all men, his charity to the poor in giving, relieving, caring, helping, providing, yea, infinitely studying how to do good unto all and hurt to none, I should sooner want words than just cause to commend him. All this I testify with my whole heart and truth, of this godly man."

What a noble instrument of good to his country had God prepared in "Maister George of Bennet Collegel" "a character like Latimer or Tyndale," and a man sealed like them to be a sacrifice for the salvation of his native land. On the tiptoe of expectation he awaited God's call. The arrival of these ambassadors at the English court was the signal of Providence, that his long wished for hour of opportunity was come. He hastened from Cambridge to join them in London; and sympathising in the joy of their successful embassy—a success which promised a lasting peace and a common crown to the two kingdoms, as well as an intimate alliance in the work of Religious Reform—he set off with them for Scotland, where the whole party arrived before the end of July, 1543.


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