The visible church in Scotland just before the Reformation was one of the most corrupt and degenerate in Europe. The prevailing vices of the clergy, their worldliness, covetousness, idleness, immorality and oppression of the poor merited the biting scorn of the court poet, Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount in his Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estates. The people shared in the almost universal dissatisfaction with the Roman Church throughout Europe. Furthermore, ever since the reign of David I, “ane sair sanct to the crown” – as one of his successors described him, Rome had amassed not less than a third of the richest and most productive estates and lands for its abbeys, monasteries and bishoprics through pious bequests for soul masses, indulgences and penances. In addition there were the tithes levied on all kinds of produce (including fish!) and even funeral exactions such as the priest taking away the cow of a poor widow (vividly described by Sir David Lyndsay)! At the same time the numerous clergy, both secular (bishops and parish priests) and regular (abbots, abbesses, priors, prioresses, monks, nuns) and mendicant friars of various orders, were exempt from state taxation! Along with this enormous wealth we find the malign influence of great power, both civil and religious, enslaving with superstitious fears of maledictions and eternal torments the minds and souls of the people. Clerical dominance of society was ensured by the fact that the hierarchy formed the educated class in society, filling the financial, legal and administrative posts in government and the highest offices in the state.
Into this realm of gross spiritual darkness, Wycliffe’s Lollard movement had penetrated in the early 15th century. The earliest Lollard martyr in Scotland was James Resby, an Englishman, who was tried and burnt in 1407. By 1416, the newly established University of St Andrews enacted that all who commenced Masters degrees should swear to defend the church against the ‘revilings’ of the Lollards. In 1433 Paul Craw, a Hussite, was burnt at St Andrews. In 1494 some thirty persons from Kyle, Ayrshire, known as ‘the Kyle Lollards’, were brought before King James IV and would have been martyred but for the clemency of the king. All this suggests that by this time Lollard and Hussite teachings were widespread. Scholastic exchanges between Scotland and other countries contributed since there were students from Scotland at most of the great European universities where not only Hussite teachings but also seeds of the new ‘renaissance learning’ were being sown.
While the Lollard movement emphasised gospel simplicity and practice, disseminated manuscript copies of Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible and rejected many Romish errors and superstitions, nevertheless it was deficient in a clear understanding of the doctrines of sin and redemption and, in particular, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. Hence it was not until the invention of printing and Luther’s writings began to filter into Scotland that people began to have a clearer understanding of the biblical doctrines of sin and salvation. Only then did widespread spiritual stirrings begin, arousing the alarm of the authorities at the importation of Luther’s books. When smuggled copies of Tyndale’s New Testament supplemented these, the authorities began to act by passing an Act in 1525 prohibiting the possession of heretical books by the laity. The wording of the Act speaks for itself: “Forasmuch as damnable heresies are being spread in divers countries by the heretic Luther and his disciples…therefore, that no manner of person…that happens to arrive with the ship in any part of this realm, bring with them any book or works of the said Luther’s…dispute or rehearse his heresies or opinions unless it be to the confusion thereof, under pain of escheating of their ship and goods and putting of their persons in prison”. But it was to no avail. Luther’s books continued to circulate. The Word of God cannot be bound.