George Wishart (1513-46)
From January 1543, a regent ruled Scotland, the Earl of Arran, acting for the infant Queen Mary whose father, James V, had died in 1542. At first the new regent was inclined to favour the protestant pro-English faction but the pro-papal pro French faction succeeded in curbing his powers to the extent that he was forced to dismiss his protestant chaplain, John Rough and his protestant domestic chaplain, Thomas Williams. The pro-French party then succeeded in getting the young Mary sent to France to be educated under the influence of the Romanist Guise family. Arran had now to tread more carefully and found it expedient to cease furthering the protestant cause and actually turned against it. Meanwhile, Cardinal Beaton (nephew of Archbishop James Beaton) and the Catholic hierarchy were plotting in 1543 to liquidate all the nobles known to favour Reformed opinions and compiled a list of over 360 names including Lord Hamilton and the Earls of Cassillis, Glencairn and Marischall – proof of the strong hold that Protestantism had taken of Scotland! Discovery of this list shortly afterwards, helped to hasten the downfall of the Roman hierarchy in Scotland and discredited their claims to be the true Church of Christ.
It was during this unsettled time that George Wishart came into prominence. A highly educated Greek scholar of noble family, he became a Lutheran while at university and was forced to flee Scotland in 1538. While abroad he translated the Swiss Confession into English. In 1543 he returned to Scotland and for three years preached the Gospel in different towns, villages, and in the open air – the first of the ‘field-preachers’, proving the truth of his own words: “Christ Jesus is as potent upon the fields as in the kirk” – his preaching being attended with divine power to the conversion of many, including some who were notoriously wicked. Beginning at Montrose, Wishart travelled to Dundee where he preached through Paul’s Letter to the Romans expounding with clarity and simplicity the doctrines of grace. Forced to flee, he returned after hearing of an outbreak of the plague. A remarkable scene was then witnessed: Wishart preaching from Psalm 107, verse 20. ‘He sent His word and healed them and saved them from their destructions’ – at the East Port of the town, surrounded by the dying and the living! By the time he left Dundee, after this second visit, his Christ-like ministrations to the afflicted resulted in the town being won for the Reformation. The evangelist made his way to Ayr where his preaching was attended with great power. Knox mentions an instance when Wishart preached for three hours from the top of a dyke near Mauchline, Ayrshire, to a large crowd: ‘In that sermon God wrought so wonderfully with him that one of the most wicked men in that country, Laurence Rankin, laird of Sheill, was converted. The tears ran from his eyes in such abundance that all men wondered. His conversion was without hypocrisy; for his life and conversation witnessed it in all times to come’ (History of the Reformation, p. 54, Banner of Truth).
Forced to flee Ayr, Wishart went to East Lothian where John Knox became his constant companion. A previously failed attempt by an agent of Cardinal Beaton to assassinate Wishart, led Knox to become his bodyguard by publicly displaying a two-handed sword to discourage any further attempt to kill the preacher in public! Apprehended by Cardinal Beaton’s men in Ormiston, East Lothian, Wishart was taken to St Andrews Cathedral and charged with 18 offences, including having preached when forbidden to do so, denying there were seven sacraments, and having declared that every layman was a priest. Also, he was accused of denying purgatory, rejecting auricular confession and clerical celibacy and repudiating the lawfulness of prayer to the saints.
After a brief trial by a church court, he was declared guilty on 20th February 1546, without the consent of the civil power and in the face of protest by the Earl of Arran. This was actually contrary to the Canon law and shows the cardinal’s haste and imprudent zeal. Wishart was burnt the next day (1st March), exhorting the gathered crowd from the stake: “I beseech you, Christian brethren and sisters, be not offended at the Word of God, for the affliction and torments which ye see prepared for me. But I exhort you, love the Word of God and suffer patiently…. this grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake”. His last words were; “This fire consumes my body, but no way abates my spirit”. Thus died ‘that blessed martyr of God, Master George Wishart’ (Knox).
Wishart was a prayerful and godly man, a compassionate practical Christian with keen discernment. As Knox testified: ‘He was a man of such graces as before him were never heard within this Realm, yea, and are rare to be found in any man, notwithstanding the great light of God that since his days hath shined unto us. He was singularly learned, as well in all godly knowledge, as in all honest human science. Also he was so clearly illuminated with the Spirit of prophecy that he saw not only things pertaining to himself but also such things as some towns and the whole Realm afterwards felt.’ It could be said that while Hamilton gave up his life for the truths of Luther, Wishart gave up his, not only or these same truths but also for those principles which gave a distinctive character to the reforms which Zwingli began in Zurich and Calvin perfected in Geneva.