Sir Patrick Hamilton, The First Lutheran Martyr in Scotland

Growing up, I had no idea that Lutheran was almost synonymous with German heritage (sorry, Preuses, et al.). The little country parish where I grew up was largely populated by my mom’s family, who were all Metcalfs. This is probably an English name, but it could also be Scottish or Irish (as soon as there are more days between Sundays, maybe I’ll do a little genealogical work on my mom’s family tree). Regardless, it is a decided non-German name. My dad’s family are McKinleys. According to DNA testing my dad had done a few years ago, we are some mix of Scots-Irish. My point? I’m the only McKinley on the roster of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Naturally, I began to feel increasingly alone in my North Atlantic Islander™ heritage in a vast sea of Germans. But then the heavens opened, and a name was revealed to me: Patrick Hamilton (I speak this way part in jest, part because I can’t remember from whom I first learned about Hamilton).

Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton was born near Glasgow, circa 1504. His father, Sir Patrick Hamilton of Kincavil, was a Scottish knight, and his mother, Catherine Stewart, was the daughter of the Duke of Albany, the second son of King James II. Since Hamilton was of noble birth and his family of considerable means, he was able to pursue a religious education. His first years were probably spent being educated in Linlithgow. In 1517 (a familiar date to some), at the age of 14, he inherited the title of Abbott of Ferne in Ross-shire. He went on to study at the College of Montaigu in Paris and became a Master of Arts in 1520.

Robert Barnes

It was during Hamilton’s time in Paris that Luther debated John Eck (1519). Although the University of Parish declared Luther a heretic in 1521, Philip Melanchthon’s pamplet, “A Defense of Martin Luther against the Furibund Decree of the Parisian Theologasters,” arrived in Paris. As the pamphlets were given to the flames in Paris, the Reformation burned on. Hamilton went on to study at Louvain, likely under the great scholar, Erasmus. Robert Barnes, who is listed in the commemoration of Lutheran Service Book, was there at the same time. Louvain was also in the thick of the Reformation, as Frederick the Wise, Luther’s elector, had asked Louvain’s opinion on Luther’s theology in 1520; they declared him a heretic the same year.

In 1523, Hamilton took up study at St. Andrew’s University and joined the faculty in 1524. By 1526, Hamilton began to teach and preach Lutheran doctrine. In Lent of 1527, James Beaton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, investigated Hamilton’s work. Beaton determined that Hamilton was “inflamed with heresy, disputing, holding, and maintaining divers heresies of Martin Luther.”[1] Hamilton, who was not prepared to be burned at the stake, went to Germany in order to meet Luther and Melanchthon.

Unfortunately, Hamilton’s plans to study in Wittenberg did not come to fruition. The plague had come to Wittenberg by the spring of 1527. Although many had fled, Hamilton was able to hear Luther preach at the castle church and Bugenhagen at the town church. He had some discussion with Melanchthon, too, before matriculating at the new university at Marburg, founded by Philip of Hesse, one of the princes who eventually signed the Augsburg Confession.

While at Marburg, Hamilton caught the attention of the university’s theological faculty. Francis Lambert, a french monk converted to the Reformation’s cause, wrote of Hamilton, “His learning was of no common kind for his years, and his judgment in divine truth was eminently clear and solid. 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.”[2] This was certainly high praise coming from a former monk who had been converted to Luther’s cause. It was at Marburg that Hamilton met William Tyndale and John Frith, who were both eventually martyred.[3] It was also at Marburg that Hamilton composed a set of theses for public disputation. Originally called Loci Communes Theologici (a work similar in style to Melanchthon’s masterpiece of the same name), these theses became popularly known as “Patrick’s Places” and were translated into English by Frith.

After six months in Germany, Hamilton returned to Scotland in the fall of 1527. Though many pleaded with him to stay in Germany because of the threat of martyrdom, Hamilton went in the confidence of his “Places”: “He is a good and a gentle Lord, and he doeth all things for nought. Let us, I beseech you, follow his footsteps, whom all the world ought to praise and worship. Amen.”[4]

Upon his return, Hamilton began to preach the Gospel in its truth and purity to his family at Kincavil and any who would listen. On one such occasion, a young noblewoman caught his attention, and they were married in late 1527 or 1528.

News of Hamilton’s return quickly reached St. Andrews. Archbishop Beaton summoned Hamilton to determine the content of what he had been preaching. After a cordial meeting between Beaton and Hamilton, Hamilton was given free reign in the city to speak and teach as he saw fit. Perhaps knowing full well what was afoot, Hamilton preached the Gospel as he had come to learn it with increasing boldness and zeal. Archbishop Beaton’s plan was to catch Hamilton in his words and build a case against him with plenty of witnesses.

Part of the strategy to defeat Hamilton involved a series of debates. Canon Alexander Alane of St. Andrew’s, known for his keen mind, was sent to refute Hamilton in a public debate. Alane, known later by his Latin name Alesius, was most notable for having publicly refuted the teachings of Martin Luther. Alesius had been acquainted with Hamilton before the latter made his journey to Marburg; he had high regard for Hamilton and sought to bring him back to the Church of Rome. However, Hamilton was able to answer all of Alesius’ objections from the clear word of the scriptures. Instead of gaining someone for Rome, Alesius was persuaded to join the Reformation cause.

The encounter with Alesius is worth exploring further. After preaching against the immorality of the clergy in Scotland, Alesius was imprisoned. He escaped to Germany in 1532, eventually coming to Wittenberg, where he met Luther and Melanchthon and signed the Augsburg Confession. He became a key figure in the English Reformation. After being forced to flee from Britain after the fall of Thomas Cromwell, Alesius went to Leipzig, serving twice as the Rector of the University.

Another debate was arranged between Hamilton and Alexander Campbell, prior of the Dominicans. Archbishop Beaton urged him to do what Alesius could not: bring Hamilton back to Rome. As with Alesius, Hamilton was able to convince Campbell of the need for reformation in the Church. Hamilton thus opened himself further to Campbell, speaking with greater and greater freedom.

However, Campbell eventually betrayed Hamilton by giving a full report of all of Hamilton’s theological positions to Archbishop Beaton. As a result of this betrayal, a list of thirteen charges were brought against Hamilton:

  1. That the corruption of sin remains in the child after baptism
  2. That no man is able by mere force of free will to do any good thing
  3. That no one continues without sins so long as he is in this life
  4. That every true Christian must know if he is in the state of grace
  5. That a man is not justified by works but by faith alone
  6. That good works do not make a good man, but that a good man makes good works
  7. That faith, hope, and charity[5] are so closely united that he who has one of these virtues has also the others
  8. That it may be held that God is cause of sin in this sense, that when he withholds his grace from a man, the latter cannot but sin
  9. That it is a devilish doctrine to teach that remission of sins can be obtained by means of certain penances
  10. That auricular confession[6] is not necessary to salvation
  11. That there is no purgatory
  12. That the holy patriarchs were in heaven before the passion of Jesus Christ
  13. That a priest has just as much power a pope

The reader will notice that most of these charges are in line with the final form of the Lutheran Confessions! Hamilton only objected to one of the charges. D’Aubigné writes, “One of the clergy, who had visited him for the purpose of catching him unawares in some heresy, had given out that the Reformers made God the author of sin. Patrick had denied it, saying—and this was matter of reproach in the eighth article—that a sinner may get to such a pitch of obduracy that God leaves him because he will no longer hear him.”[7] Hamilton was not willing to budge on the first seven charges, but admitted that the remaining charges were points that could be discussed and studied to determine more fully whether or not they were true.

In the meantime, Hamilton’s brother, John, the Sherrif of Linlithgow, had made an attempt to rescue Patrick, but they were prevented from reaching St. Andrew’s because of a storm. Another friend, John Andrew Duncan, laird of Airdrie, a friend of the Hamiltons and one who had been converted to the cause of the Reformation, assembled a small troop to rescue Patrick. However, Archbishop Beaton’s forces quickly overcame Duncan.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, now stands ruined by Knox’s followers

After hearing of these attempts to rescue him and knowing the political danger his friends faced for these attempts, Hamilton made it clear that he was ready to suffer the fate of a martyr. And so, on February 29th, 1528, Hamilton was taken from his quarters in St. Andrew’s into the Cathedral Church[8] and declared guilty. Campbell was among those who declared him thus. A brief exchange occurred between Campbell and Hamilton, who was shaken to see Campbell among his accusers. During this exchange, Campbell piled on more charges of heresy, and stopped when the charge regarding purgatory was repeated. This allowed Hamilton an opening: “Purgatory! Nothing purifies souls but the blood of Jesus Christ.”[9] Despite the faithful answers, Hamilton was condemned to death, a sentence to be carried out that very day.

Most of the Hamilton biographers note the grace and kindness with which he handled himself throughout his life, but especially in his last days. Their picture of him at his death is strikingly similar to the portraits of the early church martyrs. Hamilton gave away his cloak and New Testament, saying that they would not be of service to him in the fire. He was asked to recant, but preferred the flames that would consume his body to the flames that would consume a soul that denied Christ. The fire was kindled three times, but went out each time, due to the condition of the wood. A gunpowder explosion caused a piece of wood to fly into Hamilton’s body, causing a rather serious injury. And yet, he responded, “Have you no dry wood?”[10]

After the fire was finally kindled, Hamilton urged his opponents to testify to their faith by putting even a finger in the fire to testify to the truth of their religion, even as he had given his body into the flames to testify to his. One more exchanged happened between Campbell and Hamilton. Campbell urged Hamilton to recant, but he would do no such thing. Instead, Campbell resorted to insulting him. Hamilton, seeing that a gentle approach would not get through to Campbell, warned his betrayer that he would face divine judgment if he did not recant his position. At this, Campbell ran from the scene in great terror, fell ill, and died a few days later.

Hamilton was asked one more time, as the flames consumed him, if he still held to the Lutheran teaching. He signified that this was the case by raising his hand into the air before he died. His final prayer was that God would open the eyes of his fellow countrymen to the truth of His Word.

Patrick Hamilton is little remembered by modern Lutherans. The synopsis I’ve given here relies on tertiary sources that relied heavily on Peter Lorimer’s work. Although the Reformation in Scotland took a decidedly Calvinistic turn, the early work was done by bold Lutheran men like Hamilton. This is part of our proud heritage as Lutherans, regardless of our national identity. Praise God for such men, and would that He would grant us the same boldness of the martyrs who have gone before us. What I find particularly striking about Hamilton is that all this occurred before the Augsburg Confession was written (1530) or the Catechisms (1529). Though this bright Lutheran light was snuffed out in his day, let us let his light shine in the midst of our present darkness.

Collect for Patrick Hamilton: Almighty God, heavenly Father, You gave courage to Your servant Patrick Hamilton to give up his life for confessing the true faith during the Reformation. May we continue steadfast in our confession of the apostolic faith and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

This is me at the spot of Hamilton’s martyrdom in 2010.
Supposedly, the face etched into the stone is Hamilton’s that appeared after his death in 1528.

[1] Dallman, William. Patrick Hamilton: The First Lutheran Preacher and Martyr of Scotland. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1918. p. 8

[2] Tjernagel, Neelack. “Patrick Hamilton: Precursor of the Reformation in Scotland. Accessed 25 February 2016.

[3] Frith was burned in London in 1533, and Tyndale was strangled and burned in Vilvoorde (near Brussels) in 1536.

[4], accessed Feb. 24, 2016

[5] Often brought into our modern parlance as “love”

[6] Auricular confession refers to the practice of a priest hearing confession. This meant that the penitent had to painstakingly list every sin ever committed.

[7] Cf. St. Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-32 and the example of Pharaoh in Exodus. Notice that God does not begin to harden Pharaoh’s heart until after Pharaoh had hardened his own heart several times. Moses tells us that God is the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart starting in Exodus 9:12.

[8] The Cathedral Church at St. Andrews now stands in ruins. The church was destroyed after the later reformer, John Knox, preached a sermon against Rome.

[9] D’Aubigné, Merle. Martyrs of the Reformation. Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, PA. p. 408

[10] D’Aubigné , p. 413.

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