Patrick Hamilton was of noble lineage and connected to the royal family. While yet a child, the revenues of the Abbacy of Fearn in Ross-shire were given to him as the Commendator-Abbot – a common corrupt practice among the nobility at the time! This enabled young Hamilton to obtain a good liberal education abroad, both in Paris and Wittenberg. In 1521, while studying in Paris, he became acquainted with Luther’s writings, which were beginning to cause a stir. He welcomed them and found salvation through them. On returning to his homeland he found his new theology unacceptable and opposed by the Roman hierarchy. He then went to Wittenberg for further studies, fellowship, instruction and discussion with the Reformers, Luther and Melancthon. Such was his progress and educational attainments that in 1527 he became a professor at the age of 24 in the new university founded by Philip of Hesse in Marburg!
A year later, burning with evangelistic zeal for the salvation of his fellow-countrymen, he returned to Scotland to preach the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. His zealous preaching of Reformation doctrines, however, excited the wrath of the clergy. Because an open arrest might provoke his relatives, Hamilton was cunningly enticed by Archbishop James Beaton to St Andrews where, for a month, he was permitted to dispute openly at the university and preach in his lodgings. But as soon as the church authorities had all the evidence they needed, they suddenly arrested him and, without any proper trial, had him burnt at the stake on 28th February 1528, aged only 25. Many onlookers were deeply affected and moved by his noble bearing, meek and gentle disposition, evident sincerity and dying testimony and prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! How long shall darkness cover this realm? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men?”
The martyr’s courage and faith impressed many who began to enquire into the reasons for his execution. One bystander, Alexander Alane, who had undertaken to convince Hamilton of his errors, was himself converted and forced to flee to Europe, becoming a Lutheran theologian and writing a number of Latin works in defence of the Reformation! The death of this young nobleman alienated not only the powerful family of Hamilton but also many other Scottish nobles from the Roman faith (leading to the formation of the later ‘Lords of the Congregation’ who led the protestant opposition to the Queen Regent and her French forces). The Reformation was discussed and the truths of redemption preached. As a consequence we find that during the period 1528-40 no less than 10 other prominent men were martyred – mostly for presuming to preach the Gospel despite vigorous persecution! One instance was Henry Forrest of Linlithgow, a Benedictine monk who, after long imprisonment in the Sea Tower of St Andrews, was burnt at the stake by Archbishop Beaton for no other crime than having a New Testament in English!
Archbishop Beaton’s attempts to strike terror into the hearts of those who had come to believe biblical truth had the opposite effect. The deaths of the martyrs simply raised up more believers. One wit advised Beaton, “My Lord, if ye will burn any man, let him be burned in hollow cellars, for the reek (smoke) of Master Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it did blow upon”. Also, in 1543, in spite of parliamentary legislation upholding Roman orthodoxy, the Earl of Arran confessed that ‘heretics’ were increasing rapidly, particularly among the nobility. At Perth, in 1545, five men and a woman were tried for heresy, all of whom were hanged or burned. In the words of John Knox whose ‘History of the Reformation’ begins with Patrick Hamilton, “he did so advance in godly knowledge, joined with integrity of life, that he was in admiration with many…the bright beams of the True Light, which by God’s Grace was planted in his heart, began most abundantly to burst forth, as well in public as in secret.”
The question which the burning of Patrick Hamilton raised in thoughtful minds, remains the supreme question in connection with the whole Roman Controversy. Its answer is found in the infallible Word: ‘To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20).