George Wishart: His Life and Influence on the Reformation
On 1st March 1546, George Wishart was burnt at the stake in St Andrews. His crime was to be a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ and to have preached the gospel of saving grace in Christ alone to perishing sinners. Thus, in those dark days of the Papacy in Scotland, the Lord’s people were called upon and not found lacking, when it came to sacrificing their lives for the advancement of the true gospel. Their sacrifice was not wasted as the Lord visited the land with a great blessing — the Protestant Reformation of 1560.
His Life and Martyrdom
George Wishart was born in Pitarrow, near Montrose in the year 1513. Being born into a family of the nobility meant that he was well educated. He excelled at Greek and while at the University of Cambridge was influenced by the writings of Martin Luther. His desire for a clearer grasp of the Protestant faith was realised by travelling into Europe. While on the Continent, he came under the influence of the Swiss and German Reformers. His introduction to them had a profound effect upon him and he became a convinced Calvinist. His talent for languages was immediately put to good use translating the First Helvetic Confession into English.
He returned to Scotland in 1544, initially preaching in Montrose, but mostly in Dundee. He preached Christ with a newfound earnestness, and his labours were greatly blessed by the Lord in the conversion of sinners. However, the enemies of Christ were active and he was forced to leave Dundee by the Archbishop of St Andrews. Wishart went west to Ayrshire and preached the same gospel of Christ to perishing sinners. While in Ayr, news came to him of an outbreak of plague in Dundee. Without due regard for his own safety he returned to Dundee stating, ‘They are now in troubles and need comfort. Perhaps this hand of God will make them now to magnify and reverence the Word of God which before they lightly esteemed’. He was gratefully received by the perishing in Dundee, and preached to them from Psalm 107:20, ‘He sent his word and healed them’.
His faithful labours in Dundee enraged Cardinal Beaton, who persuaded a priest named John Weighton to disguise himself and attend Wishart’s preaching in order to kill him. The plot was discovered by Wishart, who displayed his Christian compassion by guarding the life of the would-be assassin from an outraged congregation. After this incident, Wishart left Dundee and went to stay in East Lothian. It was around this time that he became friendly with John Knox, who was willingly seen in public with a two-handed sword acting as a bodyguard for Wishart while he preached.
However it was clear that his enemies were determined to silence him and after a narrow escape at Montrose from the Cardinal’s horsemen he felt that his time of departure was drawing near. He is recorded as stating: ‘I know assuredly my travel is nigh an end. Neither shall this belong in doing, for there shall not many suffer after me’.
His arrest came swiftly. He was deceived by the Earl of Bothwell who promised him a safe passage, only to apprehend and take him up to St Andrews to deliver him into the eager hands of Cardinal Beaton.
He was accused of denying purgatory, the Mass and other falsehoods of the Roman Catholic Church. After a mock trial he was sentenced to death on March 1st 1546. Such was the hurry of Cardinal Beaton to be rid of Wishart that he even refused a request from Lord Arran the Regent to await his arrival before he would proceed with the trial of Wishart. Cardinal Beaton got his way and George Wishart was burnt at the stake with the Cardinal looking on mercilessly from a balcony of the palace.
It is said of George Wishart that at the stake he prayed for his accusers, declared his forgiveness towards his executioner, and prophesied the death of Cardinal Beaton as a judgment from the Lord. He died in prayer: ‘O Thou Saviour of the world, have mercy upon me. Father of Heaven I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands’, and passed into his eternal rest to be with the Lord he had faithfully served in his lifetime.
His Influence on the Reformation
There can be little doubt that his cruel death at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church had a profound effect on the nation. The injustice and speed at which he was martyred was seen by many as an indication of the tyranny of the Catholic Church and even Lord Arran felt great unease at this event. The common people felt a growing sense of outrage at such deeds being done in the name of the Church, and it furthered their despising of the Catholic clergy. The unjust murder of George Wishart, rather than dampen the enthusiasm of people for Protestantism, increased it.
The sacrificial whole-hearted commitment of George Wishart to Christ and the gospel also had an influence on the nation. His willingness to give his life rather than deny his Lord bore a loud testimony to the reality of his faith in Christ. The people of Scotland could not but fail to be impressed by the dedication of the Protestant martyrs when compared with the avarice of the Catholic clerics. Men like George Wishart not only preached Christ, but also lived and died for Him.
It is difficult to accurately assess his influence on John Knox, although their gospel friendship was widely known. It is however surely inconceivable to think that the preaching of George Wishart would not have a strengthening effect on Knox, whom the Lord was to use to secure the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
However it was the preaching of George Wishart to the common people that had the greatest and lasting influence on the Reformation. He preached Christ freely to all as a decided Calvinist, and the Lord blessed his labours in Dundee, Montrose and Ayrshire. Although he did not have a long gospel ministry, its effect was long-lasting. His preaching of Christ, along with that of other faithful men, helped lay a foundation of biblical truth among the common people, which had previously been denied them by the clergy. In the providence of the Lord, these faithful gospel preachers and martyrs were preparing the nation of Scotland for the Protestant Reformation of 1560.