“This Grim Fire I Fear Not”: The Forging of Scotland’s Reformer in the Burning of George Wishart

One of the important historical sites in the lovely seaside town of St. Andrews in Scotland is the ruins of its historic castle. Just outside of the castle along the street there is an inconspicuous marker laid into the pavement consisting in the letters “GW” which stand for the name George Wishart. The marker quietly commemorates the exact spot upon which Wishart was burned at the stake on the orders of Roman Catholic Cardinal David Beaton for preaching the Reformed faith. Compared with his disciple John Knox, Wishart is not nearly as well known or widely remembered, having died when he was only aboutDSC_0423 33 years old. Apart from a relatively short period of itinerant preaching in Scotland, Wishart does not appear to have accomplished much in promoting the Scottish Reformation. Yet, as many have remarked, had there been no George Wishart, there would likely have been no John Knox, at least Knox as the Reformer that we esteem today.

Knox himself paid tribute to his courageous mentor in his History of the Reformation of Scotland when he wrote the following account of Wishart’s execution on 1 March 1546:

The manner of Master George Wishart’s taking was thus:—Departing from Haddington, he took his good-night, as it were for ever, of all his acquaintance, especially from Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. John Knox pressing to go with him, Master George said: ‘Nay, return to your [pupils], and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken away from John Knox, who, albeit unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…. Before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to make advertisement. At the first word, Master George said, ‘Open the gates. The Blessed Will of my God be done!’…

The Bishops, with their complices, condemned this innocent man to be burnt as a heretic, thinking verily, that they should do to God good sacrifice … When all was done and said, my Lord Cardinal caused his tormentors to pass again with the meek lamb unto [St. Andrew’s] Castle, until such time as the fire was made ready…. When the fire was made ready, and the gallows, at the west part of the Castle of St. Andrews near the Priory, my Lord Cardinal, dreading that Master George should have been taken away by his friends, commanded to ben all the ordnance of the Castle right against the place of execution, and commanded all his gunners to stand beside their guns, until such time as he was burned. They bound Master George’s hands behind his back, and led him forth with their soldiers from the Castle, to the place of their cruel and wicked execution….

When he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees, and rose up again; and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the World, have mercy upon me! Father of Heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ Then he turned to the people and said: ‘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, and with a comfortable heart, for the Word’s sake, which is your undoubted salvation and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, I pray you, show my brethren and sisters, which have heard me oft, that they cease not to learn the Word of God which I taught unto them, for no persecutions in this world, which lasteth not. Show them that my doctrine was no 1024px-The_martyrdom_of_George_Wishartwives’ fables, after the constitutions made by men. If I had taught men’s doctrine, I had gotten greater thanks by men. But for the true Evangel, which was given to me by the Grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage. Ye shall not see me change my colour! This grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake; and not to fear them that slay the body, and afterward have no power to slay the soul. Some have said I taught that the soul of man should sleep until the Last Day; but I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night, ere it be six hours, for whom I suffer this.’

Then he prayed for them which accused him, saying; ‘I beseech Thee, Father of Heaven, forgive them that have of any ignorance, or else of any evil mind, forged lies upon me. I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them that have condemned me to death this day ignorantly.’ Last of all, he said to the people on this manner: ‘I beseech you, Brethren and Sisters, to exhort your Prelates to the learning of the Word of God, that they may be ashamed to do evil, and learn to do good. If they will not convert themselves from their wicked errors, there shall hastily come upon them the Wrath of God, which they shall not eschew.’

Many faithful words said he in the meantime, taking no care of the cruel torments prepared for him. Last of all, the hangman, his tormentor, upon his knees, said; ‘Sir, I pray you, forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death.’ To whom he answered: ‘Come hither to me.’ When he was come to him, he kissed his cheek, and said: ‘Lo! here is a token that I forgive thee My heart, do thine office!’ Then, the trumpet sounding, he was put upon the gibbet and hanged, and there burnt to powder. When the people beheld the great tormenting of that innocent, they might not withhold from piteous mourning and complaining of the innocent lamb’s slaughter.[1]

As Knox goes on to recount, Wishart’s martyrdom set off a chain of events that in God’s providence brought Knox to the forefront of Scottish Protestantism, under whose leadership the Reformed faith would arguably have its most widespread, unified success. The outrage over Wishart’s execution led to the storming of St. Andrews castle, the establishment of a consolidated Protestant movement, and the recognition of Knox as the movement’s primary preacher and driving force. Not only this, but as reflected in Knox’s History, the passionate preaching and dying exhortations of George Wishart fueled a fire in Knox’s bones equal to the flames which had consumed his beloved mentor. Little did Cardinal Beaton know, the fire that he kindled in an attempt to stop the spread of Reformation preaching in Scotland was the spark that ultimately set the entire country ablaze.

When Wishart went to the stake, the prospect of the Reformation’s success was tenuous at best. It would be understandable if in a passing moment of weakness prior to his execution Wishart had questioned if his short life really amounted to all that much some accounts, he had failed in what he endeavoured to do. Yet his was his self-sacrifice thatWishartKnox played a significant, if not determinative, role in shaping John Knox into the Reformer that he became and in galvanizing the Scottish people as a whole under the banner of the Reformation.

I am reminded of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel: When Peter saw [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'” No doubt Wishart would have wanted to remain to continue to preach alongside Knox for many years to come. Perhaps he may have questioned God in allowing his ministry to be cut short. Yet in the providence of God, what perhaps seemed like a failure and a defeat in the immediate time turned out to be the catalyst for Scotland’s Reformation. We never know all that God intends to do with us, and it may take eternity before we discover the marvelous beauty and perfection of his sovereign plan. Yet discover it we shall. So let us not despair in our present sufferings, failures, setbacks, and defeats. In God’s redemptive economy, nothing is ever wasted.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 52, 55-56, 58-59, 62-65.

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