This article gives a biography of Patrick Hamilton with focus on the role he played for the Scottish Reformation.

Source: Witness, 2010. 3 pages.

Patrick Hamilton Precursor of the Scottish Reformation

At noon, 29th February 1528, outside the entrance of St Salvator’s College, St Andrews, a large crowd had assembled to witness the terrifying sight of the burning of a young nobleman of 24 years who had been tied to a stake. For nearly six hours he patiently endured the slow torment of an agonising death. His death had made a deep and abiding impression on the onlookers, one of whom, Alexander Ales who had witnessed his trial for heresy before Archbishop James Beaton and the Scottish hierarchy and had undertaken to win him back to Rome, was so convinced of the truth of the Gospel by the testimony and courageous death of the young martyr that he openly declared his convictions and was forced to flee to Europe where, under his assumed name of Alesius, he became a zealous reformer and notable theologian. Alesius, Foxe and Knox are our main sources for information on this faithful young soldier of Jesus Christ whose last words were ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! How long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? And how long will you suffer this tyranny of men?’ He was the first of our Reformation martyrs to suffer for Gospel truth. Such was the effect of his death in helping to spread the Reformation in Scotland that men said, ‘the reek (smoke) of Master Patrick Hamilton infected all it blew on’.

Early Life🔗

Born in 1504 within the diocese of Glasgow, the second son of Sir Patrick Hamilton of Stanehouse and Catherine Stewart, granddaughter of James II of Scotland, he seems to have had his early education at Linlithgow Grammar School. In 1517 he was appointed Commendator or titular Abbot of Fearn, Ross-shire — a common abuse in the pre-Reformation church, but which enabled him to study at the University of Paris where he graduated in Arts in 1520. 1517 was the year of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, which marked the beginning of the Protestant revolt against Rome.

Gospel Light🔗

It was in Paris where Luther’s writings were already exciting much discussion that young Hamilton heard, and gladly embraced, those truths on justification by grace through faith alone, for which he later ‘loved not his life unto death’. According to Alesius, Hamilton subsequently went to Louvain, probably attracted by the fame of Erasmus who, by 1521, had made it his headquarters. Like many other young scholars of the period, Zwingli, Tyndale, Melancthon, and Calvin, Hamilton began as a disciple of Erasmus and ended as a disciple of Luther. In the words of his friend Alesius, ‘He was a man of excellent learning and very acute mind’. Having experienced the power of the truth in his own soul, he longed to communicate the Gospel in its simplicity and purity to his own nation.

Returns To Scotland🔗

Early in 1523 he returned to Scotland where he became a member of St Leonard’s College in the University of St Andrews. In 1524 he was admitted to its faculty of arts, where he became at first a student of, and then a colleague of, the humanist and logician John Major. But Major was no friend of Lutheran evangelicalism and Hamilton had to seek like-minded friends elsewhere — in men such as Gavin Logie, Principal of St Leonard’s College and canons of the local Augustinian Priory, such as its prior, John Wynrame who had become sympathetic to Lutheran views. Constrained by the love of Christ and zeal for the salvation of his perishing fellow countrymen, Hamilton began to preach. His activities and his aristocratic family connections alarmed the papal hierarchy headed by Archbishop James Beaton. Their opposition and the threat of a formal trial led Hamilton to flee to Germany where he sought the fellowship of Luther, Melancthon, and Lambert.

Flees To Germany🔗

Hamilton had intended going to Wittenberg, but providentially, an outbreak of the plague diverted him to the new University of Marburg, which the Protestant Landgrave Philip had erected. There, under Francis Lambert, Hamilton continued his studies, enjoying fellowship with like-minded friends such as the English Reformers, Frith and Tyndale. ‘His object’, said Lambert, ‘was to confirm himself more abundantly in the truth; and I can truly say that I have seldom met with anyone who conversed on the Word of God with greater spirituality and earnestness of feeling. He was often in conversation with me upon these subjects’.

‘Patrick’s Places’🔗

Lambert suggested to Hamilton that he follow Luther’s example and prepare a set of theses to be publicly defended and disputed. According to Lambert, ‘the propositions were most evangelical, and supported by the greatest learning. It was by my advice that he took this step’. Such was the origin of the well-known and influential Patrick’s Places (Loci Communes or Common Places) — a treatise like Melanchthon’s Loci Communes. Originally in Latin, Hamilton’s theses were translated into English by John Frith and printed. They are to be found in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. A brief selection of Patrick’s Places will help us to see something of the clarity of Hamilton’s grasp of fundamental truths such as justification by grace through faith alone, expressed in his own pithy and homely style.

His Teaching🔗

Take, for example, the section headed ‘A Disputation between the Law and the Gospel’.

The Law says, ‘Pay your debt’. The Gospel says, ‘Christ has paid it’.

The Law says, ‘You are a sinner: despair; you shall be damned’. The Gospel says, ‘Your sins are forgiven you: be of good comfort: you shall be saved’.

The Law says, ‘Make amends for your sins’. The Gospel says, ‘Christ has made it for you’.

The Law says, ‘The Father in Heaven is angry with you’. The Gospel says, ‘Christ has pacified Him with His blood’. The Law says, ‘Where is your righteousness, goodness, satisfaction?’ The Gospel says, ‘Christ is your righteousness, your goodness, your satisfaction’.

The Law says, ‘You are bound and obliged to me, to the devil, and to hell’. The Gospel says, ‘Christ has delivered you from them all’.

We have also his comparison between Faith and Unbelief: Faith is the root of all good; makes God and man friends; brings God and man together. Unbelief is the root of all evil; makes them deadly foes; brings them asunder.

All that proceeds from faith pleases God. All that proceeds from unbelief displeases God.

Faith only makes a man good and righteous. Unbelief makes him unjust and evil

Then we have his final section, dealing with the nature of good works:

‘No works make us righteous. No works make us unrighteous’.

‘None of our works either save us or condemn us’.

‘He that thinks to be saved by his works calls himself Christ’.

Commenting on this last somewhat startling expression, Hamilton asserts,

He that thinks to be saved by his works calls himself Christ — for he calls himself the Saviour, which pertains to Christ only. What is a Saviour, but he that saves? And he says, ‘I saved myself; which is as much as to say ‘I am Christ’; for Christ only is the Saviour of the World. We should do no good works for the intent to get the inheritance of Heaven, or remission of sins through them. For whosoever believes to get the inheritance of heaven, or remission of sin through works, he believes not to get the same for Christ’s sake.

Final Return to Scotland🔗

In the autumn of 1527 Hamilton returned to Scotland, bold in the conviction of his principles and fired with a holy zeal for the salvation of his fellow countrymen. He went first to his brother’s house at Kincavel, near Linlithgow, in which town he preached frequently. His earnest evangelistic labours were blessed to the conversion of many, including his elder brother, Sir James, and his sister, Katherine. It was during this time that he married a young lady of noble rank whose name is unknown. But Satan was not idle and stirred up Archbishop Beaton and the hierarchy to plot his destruction. The wily Beaton was anxious to avoid open conflict through fear of Hamilton’s family connections. Instead, under pretence of friendship, he invited him to a conference at St Andrews to discuss matters of reform. Although aware of the danger, Hamilton accepted, being determined to seize the opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel, confident that by his death he would confirm the faith of the godly. For a month he was permitted to preach and dispute, probably to provide material for his accusation. At length the trap was sprung. During the night the archbishop’s retainers arrested him. Next morning he was summoned before a council of bishops and clergy presided over by Beaton.

Trial and Martyrdom🔗

He was tried for heresy on thirteen charges, seven of which were based upon his own Patrick’s Places (Loci Communes). On examination he maintained that the doctrines he taught were agreeable to the Word of God and undoubtedly true. The council condemned him on all the charges and handed him over to the secular power to be punished. The sentence of burning at the stake was carried out that same day to prevent any armed attempt at rescue by his friends. His unflinching courage and witnessing to his Saviour at the stake caused a great sensation throughout Scotland and attracted more attention than ever to the doctrines for which he suffered. One singular aspect of his martyrdom was that, practically alone, he represented the Lutheran stage of the Reformation.

His gentleness, compassion and courteousness attracted many.

In the words of John Knox, hedid so grow and advance in godly knowledge, joined with fervency and integrity of life, that he was in admiration with many. The zeal of God’s glory did so eat him up, that he could of no long continuance remain there (in Germany), but returned to his country, where 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’.

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