The Reformation in Scotland

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3




A short thematical overview

What are Presbyters and Calvinists?

Scotland’s society in the 16th century
John Knox

The Beginnings

The Reformation




This term paper deals with the topic of the Reformation of Scotland. In the course of this paper I will first give a short insight into the main historical facts and figures and will go on with explanations of the most important characteristics of the religious transformation and its initiator. To give background knowledge I will also pay attention to the society that lived in Scotland in the Middle Ages by giving an extra chapter on this topic.

The main part of this work will deal with the chronological summary of Scotland in the 16th century.

A conclusion will be given at the end of this term paper.

A short thematical overview

Nowadays the Church of Scotland, accounting more than 752.000 members, is the official Church of Scotland. Also known as the Old Kirk it was established during the times of Reformation. Its denomination is Calvinistic.

The Reformation started with a protest in Germany in1517, when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his 95 Treaties onto a church door in Wittenberg. What started as the spiritual doubts of one monk spiralled into a religious movement known as Protestantism - named after Luther’s 'protest' against the Roman proceedings with indulgencies. The Reformation in England came about mainly for reasons due to Henry VIII’s attempts to gain an annulment of his marriage to his first wife Catherine I.

In Scotland Protestantism gained ground in the 1540s, but the Reformation did not start before 1557. After Mary of Guise, the Catholic regent of Scotland, had been dethroned, the Roman-Catholic Mass was abolished by Parliament and the Scots Confession was ratified. This confession, created by John Knox, was formulated according to the confessions of the reformed churches of the rest of Europe. In 1560 John Knox (1505-1572) and Andrew Melville were successful in officially establishing Presbyterian Calvinism and papal jurisdiction was abolished. With the declaration of the Golden Act in 1592, the Presbyterian laws were accepted and the royal power of jurisdiction over the church was repealed.

What are Presbyters and Calvinists?

Presbyters form a religious group whose origins root in the Reformation. The etymology of the word derives from the Greek word presbuteroz - presbyteros and means the oldest. That means that this church community is organized and ruled by the elders of the group. Those can be clerics or laymen, men or women. The administration consists of democratic as well as of hierarchical elements and is managed by clerics and laymen, who are elected by the community. The ‘head’ of the community is not a pope or someone comparable but Jesus Christ alone.

The Presbyterians are a religious group that was founded by Johannes Cauvin, who wanted to establish a community according to the New Testament, ruled by the elders. But, he was of the opinion that the Presbyters could not be the only form of church that can be justified by the Bible. Thus, nowadays there are many religious subgroups which are Calvinistic, but not Presbyterian. This religious formation spread all over Europe and North America and is called Reformed Church on the European Continent and Presbyterism in North America and on the British Isles.

Calvin’s most important work is the Institutio Christianae Religionis of 1536, which he revised again and again. The version of 1559 is the most popular. Just like Martin Luther Calvin based his ideology on the Bible and justification by grace. Thus he was of the opinion that salvation is not a matter of human action, but of God’s grace. He reduced the sacraments from seven to two: Baptism and Communion.

The sermon is centre of the Presbyterian Mass, while the liturgy stands in the background and the Communion is only given at special events.[1]

Scotland’s society in the 16th century

It was a time of transformation: old principles were being questioned and society was heading towards new thoughts and beliefs. Now trade and commerce were important to people, towns were growing and new information was being discussed.

Before the 16th century, religion was important to the Scots. Socially, the Church was crucial to everyday life. It was responsible for education, health, welfare and discipline. Furthermore it was also very important on an individual level. The church was the vehicle for expressing inner spirituality and changes to its forms of worship could endanger one’s chances of salvation. Thus, a man’s future in either Heaven or Hell was at stake. The ecclesiastical institution was no longer the supporter of those in distress, but it retained its wealth mainly for its own ease.

The Reformation split the church into two communities, the one of the

new faith and the other of the old faith, meaning the Church of Rome. Both of which claimed to occupy the truth. Thus it was important to the Scots that the state chose the right way to salvation. Although King James V tried to ban Luther’s works which were written in Latin, they spread all over Scotland and became very popular. At the beginning of the 16th century Scotland was catholic, but was heading to the future modern world. Thus Rome and its doctrines were not up to date, meaning society was looking for a theological reformation.

John Knox

Born in Giffordgate in 1513, John Knox was ordained as priest in 1536 and started preaching in 1546. Later he became the most important person in the Scottish Reformation, but had to flee from Scotland after Mary of Guise’s succession to the throne. In Geneva Knox became a follower of Calvin and preached his doctrines in Scotland after his return in 1559. Then he began to fight for an ecclesiastically Reformation, supported by the Scottish royalty.[2] He set the rigorous moral tone of the Church of Scotland and shaped the democratic form of government it adopted. He was also influenced by George Wishart, who was burned for heresy in 1546. Knox died in Edinburgh on 24 November 1572.[3]

The Beginnings

The fact that an ecclesiastical change was needed is amply evident when focusing on England in the 14th century. John Wycliffe who lived in the 14th century and worked as a professor of theology at Oxford, was the spokesman of the national political opposition to the strict and hierarchical papacy. Edward III, King of England, and the whole English nation supported Wycliffe, when he began to criticise papacy, clergy and the friars in 1378. According to him “all authority in Church and State is founded in grace, and that, therefore, a priest or pope in mortal sin has no authority in the Church. The supreme authority is the scripture which is the ‘Law of God’. The Pope is Antichrist. The worship of saints, relics, and images is unscriptural and to be rejected, along with ceremonies not prescribed in the Law of God. Transubstantiation is heresy”.[4] First Wycliffe was able to go on proclaiming his teachings, but finally he was banned by the archbishop of Canterbury. Until his death in 1384 he continued his work and wrote numerous polemical tracts against the Church of England. His followers published successful propaganda and were called Lollards. Although many Scottish students studied at Oxford, none of them brought Wycliffe’s teachings to his home country. Nevertheless, safety measures were taken by the Scotts and King Robert III condemned these writings as heretical. Albany, the next regent, sentenced the first Lollard to death at the stake. There was just one other victim: a Czech scholar of St. Andrews, whose heresies were detected, who was burnt at the stake at St. Andrews in 1433.


[1] Encarta Enzyklopädie Standart 2003, Microsoft

[2] Der Brockhaus. Religionen. Glauben, Riten, Heilige, ed. by F.A. Brockhaus, (Mannheim, Leipzig, 2004), p. 362

[3] Knox, John, Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 6, 2004, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <>

[4] Burleigh, J.H.S.: A Church History of Scotland, (London, 1961) p.117..

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The Reformation in Scotland
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (English Department)
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Reformation, Scotland, Scottland
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Britta Wirth (Author), 2004, The Reformation in Scotland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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