The progress of the Reformation was now rapid throughout the Scottish lowlands, embracing Angus, Fife, Lanarkshire, Glasgow area, Ayrshire, the Lothian region, Dumfriesshire and elsewhere. As yet they had no preachers, meeting in places and at times which circumstances permitted for mutual edification with the ablest and most godly being appointed to read the Scriptures, to exhort and to offer up prayer (liberty of worship being denied by the authorities). Comprising all classes: nobles, barons, burgesses, farmers, tradesmen, weavers and peasants, and feeling the need for order in their meetings, they chose elders to watch over their morals, promising subjection to them – the outward organisation of a Church beginning to appear! It is interesting to note that in the Reformed Church of Scotland elders came before ministers! The first congregation to have elders was in Edinburgh, and the first town to be provided with a pastor was Dundee (so thoroughly reformed as to be called the Geneva of Scotland!).
However, the Roman hierarchy was now thoroughly alarmed, and once again resorted to persecution. They captured Walter Mylne, a former parish priest at Lunan who had fled the church authorities many years previously on becoming a protestant. When captured and brought before the ecclesiastical tribunal at St Andrews, the aged man could scarcely stand, yet he boldly confessed his faith in Christ and His truth. Convicted of heresy, he was burnt at the stake in August 1558, his memorable prophetic testimony being: “As for me I am fourscore years old and cannot live long by course of nature, but a hundred better shall rise out of my ashes who shall scatter you, ye hypocrites and persecutors of God’s people. I trust in God I shall be the last that shall suffer death in Scotland for this cause”. This proved true. He was the last in Scotland to be burnt at the stake by Rome. It roused such revulsion in popular feeling as to make it impossible for the persecution to continue. Awakened to Rome’s true nature, the nation now awaited a leader to place the Reformation on an organised basis. This leader was Knox.
During Knox’s three years’ absence (1556-9) he had remained in constant correspondence with the Scottish nobility, waiting for an opportune time to return – an inducement being the concession of liberty promised by the queen regent. In May 1559 he arrived in Perth but found that the queen regent had reneged on her promise and tried to suppress the Reformation by force. She summoned a number of the preachers to Stirling for trial but it was in vain. Alienation from the Roman Church and armed resistance to persecution led to organised revolt. Half the nobility now came over to the cause of the Reformation, many of them sincerely but others for political expediency. This was compounded by hostility aroused by the excesses of the French forces that were now seen as an army of occupation. The turning point came when her forces failed to engage a large determined protestant force at Cupar Muir in Fife. Retreating before the Lords of the Congregation, she found herself and her forces besieged in Edinburgh Castle, unable to get French reinforcements or supplies by reason of an effective blockade by the English fleet. The queen regent was deposed and died shortly afterwards. This was followed by the castle’s surrender and the Treaty of Edinburgh (or Leith) in 1560.
The nobles then called together the Estates of the realm (the Scottish Parliament) and petitioned it to reform the church in doctrine, worship and discipline, and to distribute the patrimony of the church. Within four days six Reformers headed by Knox prepared and presented a protestant Confession of Faith called the Scots or ‘Old’ Confession which was approved and endorsed by Parliament. Papal authority within the realm was abrogated and celebration of the Mass forbidden. Meanwhile the Congregation under Knox’s leadership became an instrument in organising congregations elsewhere. Soon they were able to hold a great thanksgiving service after arranging eight fully constituted churches. However, vast areas and remote parishes, especially in the Gaelic-speaking Northern and Western Highlands and Islands remained in gross spiritual darkness, virtually untouched by the reforming movement in the Lowlands.
But the return of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1561 with her French entourage, including members of the strongly Romanist Guise family, presented Knox and his brethren with a new challenge and threat to the Reformed Church. Her tenacious hold of Romanism and its superstitions soon made Knox realise that either the Reformation or the queen would fall. His concerns were heightened when, within a week of her return, she had Mass celebrated within her chapel – thereby challenging at once the legality of the proceedings of the Estates, which had legalised the Reformation!